Can Government Do Anything Well?

I’m suspicious of superstitions, like astrology or the belief that “green jobs will fix the environment and the economy.” I understand the appeal of such beliefs. People crave simple answers and want to believe that some higher power determines our fates.

The most socially destructive superstition of all is the intuitively appealing belief that problems are best solved by government.

Opinion polls suggest that Americans are dissatisfied with government. Yet whenever another crisis hits, the natural human instinct is to say, “Why doesn’t the government do something?”

And politicians appear to be problem-solvers. We believe them when they say, “Yes, we can!”

In 2008, when Barack Obama’s supporters shouted, “Yes, we can!” they expressed faith in the power of government to solve problems. Some acted as if Obama were a magical politician whose election would end poverty and inequality and bring us to “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

At least now people have come to understand that presidents — including this president — can’t perform miracles.

People vastly overestimate the ability of central planners to improve on the independent action of diverse individuals. What I’ve learned watching regulators is that they almost always make things worse. If regulators did nothing, the self-correcting mechanisms of the market would mitigate most problems with more finesse. And less cost.

But people don’t get that. People instinctively say, “There ought to be a law.”

If Americans keep voting for politicians who want to spend more money and pass more laws, the result will not be a country with fewer problems but a country that is governed by piecemeal socialism. We can debate the meaning of the word “socialism,” but there’s no doubt that we’d be less prosperous and less free.

Economists tend to focus on the “prosperous” part of that statement. But the “free” part, which sounds vague, is just as important. Individuals and their freedom matter. Objecting to restrictions on individual choice is not just an arbitrary cultural attitude, it’s a moral objection. If control over our own lives is diminished — if we cannot tell the mob, or even just our neighbors, to leave us alone — something changes in our character.

Every time we call for the government to fix some problem, we accelerate the growth of government. If we do not change the way we think, we will end up socialists by default, even if no one calls us that.

Pity us poor humans. Our brains really weren’t designed to do economic reasoning any more than they were designed to do particle physics. We evolved to hunt, seek mates, and keep track of our allies and enemies. Your ancestors must have been pretty good at those activities, or you would not be alive to read this.

Those evolved skills still govern human activities (modernized versions include game-playing, dating, gossiping). We’re hardwired to smash foes, turn on the charisma and form political coalitions. We’re not wired to reason out how impersonal market forces solve problems. But it’s mostly those impersonal forces — say, the pursuit of profit by some pharmaceutical company — that give us better lives.

Learning to think in economic terms — and to resist the pro-central-planning impulse — is our only hope of rescuing America from a diminished future.

No one can be trusted to manage the economy. I began by criticizing Obama, but Republicans may be little better. Both parties share the fatal conceit of believing that their grandiose plans will solve America’s problems. They won’t.

But cheer up: Saying that government is not the way to solve problems is not saying that humanity cannot solve its problems. What I’ve finally learned is this: Despite the obstacles created by governments, voluntary networks of private individuals — through voluntary exchange — solve all sorts of challenges.

John Stossel is host of “Stossel” on the Fox Business Network. His most recent book is “No They Can’t: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed.” To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at Stossel will be speaking at a dinner event hosted by the Rio Grande Foundation on Wednesday, April, 25 at the Marriott Pyramid Hotel. More information is available at or by phone at 505-264-6090.

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3 Replies to “Can Government Do Anything Well?”

  1. It is amazing how often each and everyone of us loses sight of the value of freedom. The simple ability to choose “freely” among most options in life is the exact thing that makes not only our own lives great, but that of the lives of others around us great as well.

    Someone once asked me; “so, do you believe that man is inherently good, or is he more likely “bad” at his core, and wanting in hos ability to care and socialization among his lessor pers. My answer to his question came in the form of a question, as follows: If we agree that all people have special talents,which are both inherited and developed, and perhaps that even the more pure sociopaths among us can be put to more useful purposes, then in the final analysis the answer to the question must be defined in terms of “what is truly good and what is truly bad…and who should decide this?”.

    Now, consider the cascading effects of few deciding for many, versus many deciding for themselves, in relation to both themselves and those that they might interact with…consider the basics of contract law, for example, offer versus acceptance, or decline, versus mutual consent to exchange, or decline to exchange, valuable consideration between and amongst parties, freely.

    Yes, we need laws to ensure the actual exchanges take place according to an agreement, and yes, without such a defined system of mediation and adherence, people will and do suffer unfair losses (e.g., GM bond holders in a “prepackaged” bailout versus a normal and pre-existing bankruptcy prioritizing procedure). Now consider the opposite, without the ability to accept or decline an offer, and where valuable consideration is simlpy taken, or otherwise mandated (ObamaCare comes to mind, here).

    Freedom over our basic daily lives, and the choices that we make in them, provides the most efficient answer to my friend’s original question. Which is exactlly why our nation’s founders took the word, and it’s conceptual application so seriously as to form an entire nation and its laws, as well as the rights of its citizens, around such a word and concept. No planner, social engineer or man behind any curtain, can even come close to duplicating this idea’s positive effects or ability to grow as both an individual or a society, on the whole. The U.S. is, or at least it was, the perfect example of this societal evolutionary dynamic…and it worked so well that we’ve forgotten it’s value to the point of exchanging it for nearly next to nothing.

  2. When I was reading this post I thought it was written by Paul Gessing, and I said BRAVO. Well, I still say Bravo for having the courage to post it. What an excellent summary of my views on the zeitgiest.

    1. There’s certainly nothing wrong with maintaining the freedom to debate (sometimes aggressively and passionately), or outright agree, with oneanother. Although, I think you may have just insulted Paul…as well as his comparative writing skills.

      Interestingly enough, the friend, who asked me the question that I was referring to, was Russian. He was actually calling me out in the middle of a university level course discussion, at the time. I’m sure that our professor was enjoying every last minute of it too, right up and until the point that I provided my own answer/question, which then lead to an extended pause, followed by a quick insinuation that I was the likely sociopath, from the perspective of our professor.

      By the end of that course I had certainly learned a thing or two, and my Russian friend was praising capitalism, freedom and Adam Smith, and he and many others were beginning to question everthing, including their U.S. professor’s motives, sanity and overall agenda…ahhh, the miricles of tenure.

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