Every time someone says “the government should …,” ask them to replace the “G word” with “politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist.” Does the speaker still think “the government should?” It’s a good test suggested by Michael Munger in his article “Unicorn Governance.” His point is that nearly all calls for state intervention really profess a kind of belief in unicorns. So let’s remove the unicorn from the argument. He says:
My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA.
But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of “the State.” That seems literally insane to me—a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I had trouble taking it seriously.
Along the same lines, Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek offers a quote from Matt Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist:
Economists are quick to speak of ‘market failure’, and rightly so, but a greater threat comes from ‘government failure‘. Because it is a monopoly, government brings inefficiency and stagnation to most things it runs; government agencies pursue the inflation of their budgets rather than the service of their customers; pressure groups form an unholy alliance with agencies to extract more money from taxpayers for their members. Yet despite all this, most clever people still call for government to run more things and assume that if it did so, it would somehow be more perfect, more selfless, next time.
Finally, Boudreaux has a recent piece in which he proposes a little Platitude Test. Is the speaker offering up a platitude? Well, “ask yourself if you can imagine a normal human adult believing the opposite.” If so, then there is truly something of substance at issue. Boudreaux notes that this is usually not the case when the word “sustainability” is trotted out:
p style=”padding-left:30px;”>You’ll discover, of course, that you can’t imagine anyone seriously supporting ‘unsustainability.’ Therefore, you should conclude that mere expressions of support for ‘sustainability’ are empty. And they can be downright harmful if they mislead people into supporting counterproductive government policies. Substantive issues involving sustainability invoke questions that have non-obvious answers. For example: At what rate must the supply of a resource fall before we conclude that continued use of that resource is unsustainable?
Ultimately, market mechanisms are fabulous guardians of real sustainability, since they price scarce resources so as to allocate them efficiently across time and space, providing incentives for conservation, to bring forth new supplies of the resource, and to develop rational substitutes. Unicorns and the state don’t do nearly as well.
NOTE: I apologize for the haphazard formatting in this post. I cannot seem to get the editor to cooperate tonight. I had similar problems last night but resolved them, though not in a fully satisfactory way. Tonight the issues seem worse.