The Unrepentant Individual

...just hanging around until Dec 21, 2012

February 22, 2005

The Infallibility of Government

“The government should fix that!”

“The government should pay for that!”

“How could the government let that happen?!”

All statements and questions that we frequently hear in our society. We have grown into a myth that the government is a benevolent and all-powerful force in this country. We have more faith in government to be good than Catholics have in the Pope. We trust, despite endless evidence to the contrary, that government not only can, but will come in and fix the problems that we face.

When corporations or individuals go wrong, people assume that it’s just because they’re naturally self-interested and evil. When the government does wrong, the perpetrators get a pass, because they were just acting in the peoples’ best interest. How it is that we demonize the people who have earned their positions of power, while exalting those who have simply been “elected” or “appointed” to positions of much wider power, is simply beyond me.

I’ve often asked myself why people have such faith in the government. Scott Scheule, posting at Catallarchy, in an impressively insightful write-up, posits that it is due to a sampling bias:

The only time the federal government steps in is when the States or market do something wrong. People don’t hound the government when the market is working, and citizens don’t write their Congressmen when the fifty States are doing the right thing, all in their fifty different ways. If it ain’t broke, then why subsidize it?

So, I suggest that it is only when markets and sovereign States err that the ire of people is aroused to such a level that the federal government acts.

The result of this is that the federal government develops an illusion of heroism (legitimacy?), a deus ex machina to swoop down from above to integrate schools, sue tobacco companies, protect the environment, free slaves, and all those other marvelous things you learned about in history class if you went to public school. Thousands of politicians cloak and reinforce this bias; they are rationally of course quite willing to take as much responsibility as they can for being saviors–their reelection depends on it.

For 200 years, the government has been the one stepping in, with much fanfare and hoopla. No mention has ever been made to go back ten or twenty years later, to make sure that they had solved the problem and not created any new ones. Likewise, once a government “solution” has taken hold, there is always the reminder of the initial problem brought up when the proposal is made to remove the solution.

This is made even worse by the fact that so much of government’s cost is hidden. People have a much easier time ending a benefit when they realize they’re paying way too much for it. As I mentioned in my post on tax withholding, we rarely ask ourselves how much we are truly paying for the services of government. When taxes are withheld and you get a small refund at the end of the year, tax rates and the effects of regulations are an abstraction. “The government’s money” no longer registers in your mind as having come from your own wallet.

So what’s the answer? Unfortunately, I can’t say that I know. But at least now we have begun to identify the problem. If we can convince people how badly the government is doing their job (see: IRS, immigration, postal service, Amtrak, Department of Education, Agriculture, FBI, CIA, Social Security, Medicare, etc etc), and then explain what these “services” cost (end withholding and simplify the tax code), maybe we’ll see some real change.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 7:39 pm || Permalink || Comments (6) || Trackback URL || Categories: Uncategorized


  1. The most dangerous words in the english language very well may be “There oughta be a law”

    Comment by Chris Byrne — February 23, 2005 @ 5:56 am
  2. To the extent that your post was at all related to our recent back and forth (and certainly I kid myself to even bring it up).

    I would never say that government is good. I would say that government is the most accountable of the three major institutions:

    Church (in all religions and denominations),

    (I would not make a distinction between state and Federal government for this conversation).

    Because I believe that government is, when it is run reasonably well, the most accountable, I would prefer the services to run through government.

    I believe that in this country, at least, the government is run reasonably well. Especially when you compare it to everything else

    Comment by B — February 23, 2005 @ 6:50 am
  3. All,
    In response to B’s questions here and in the comments section of his most excellent blog, I posted the following over there. Since it is relevent here as well, I’ve cross-posted.

    First, his questions:

    If society has the moral obligation, and the government should not be the agent for discharging that obligation, whose obligation should it be?

    Why do you think someone other than the elected government can deliver services in a way that would avoid the problems that you think government causes?.

    First question: My thought is that one of the major problems with government is that it is not voluntary. I believe, and I think most Americans believe, that helping our fellow man is an incredibly important act of virtue. America has consistently held itself out to be an absolute leader in charitable contributions, even on top of all the money paid to government.

    I think it is society’s job, but while I might try to convince you to help others, I don’t think I have a right to stick my hand in your pocket and force you to. I believe private charity can and will step up, help those in need, and be fully funded by Americans who, like me, believe that it is our job to do so. When the government steals from me for the same purpose, I think they steal more than just money, they pull “virtue” out of the equation.

    Second question: This is related to the comment you left on my site about accountability.

    I believe private charity is more flexible, more accountable, and more efficient than the government.

    Flexibility: Federal government specifically, is simply a “one size fits all” solution. Show up at the door, take your check, move along. People are individuals with individual problems. I think private charity has more intention and more ability to take an individual approach and cure problems, rather than treat symptoms.

    Accountability: Who is the federal government accountable to? Not voters, with the gerrymandering problems we have. Not the recipients, because they have no power to speak out. Not their funding, because people who are spending other people’s money rarely worry that much about how it’s spent. Private charities rely on voluntary contributions. As such, they need to provide results and honesty, or their contributions will be put to more reputable charities. Government gets their cut of your income without any choice, nor do individuals have any recourse for removing that funding if they don’t like the system it supports.

    Efficiency: Much like the above argument, this comes down to an OPM (other people’s money) issue. When you’re spending OPM, efficiency goes out the window. When there is no competitive market providing services, efficiency goes out the window. When oversight and control is farther and farther away from the people providing money and the people providing the service, efficiency goes out the window.

    Simply put, I just don’t think the government is capable of living up to the promises they make. And a system outside government won’t be hampered by all the same problems, but will have competition and inherent feedback loops to ensure better performance. Note that I don’t say perfect performance, because that won’t be acheived either way. But I think the market is more perfect than the government.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — February 23, 2005 @ 9:30 am
  4. Mrs. TF Here, Too many “services” turn into entitlements.

    Comment by T. F. Stern — February 23, 2005 @ 8:53 pm
  5. I’m working on an essay which posits that it might be the need for many to give a single entity credit for things that drives many people to credit government for the condition of society. Therefore, when things go well, government gets the credit by default.

    Comment by Quincy — February 25, 2005 @ 12:54 am
  6. Much solid thinking in these comments
    and in Brad’s post.

    All empires fall and the US is now
    in the empire stage.

    Best not to be underneath…if that’s

    I’m beginning to suspect that the fall
    occurs when the weight of the sacrifice
    by the citizens to support empire is
    unbearable and in a myriad of ways they
    cease to do so, in word and deed.

    Comment by jomama — February 25, 2005 @ 5:28 am

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