Andre Schleifer, Autocracy, Chinese Interment Camps, Friedrich Hayek, Kazakh Muslims, New York Times, P.J. O'Rourke, Reason.com Nick Gillespie, Reeducation, rent seeking, statism, The Road To Serfdom, Tom Friedman, Uighur Muslims
Some have a tendency to think their problems can be solved only through the intervention of some powerful, external force. That higher power might be God, but at a more temporal level, government is often presumed to be a force to fix all things that need fixing. “There oughta be a law” is a gut reaction to things we find injurious or that offend; government has the resources, or the coercive power to get the resources, to undertake big, appealing projects; and of course government has the coercive power to “rearrange the deck chairs” in ways that might satisfy anyone’s sense of justice and fairness, so long as they get their way. Whenever people perceive some need they believe to be beyond their private capacity, or mere convenience, government action is the default option, and that’s partly because many think it’s the only option.
That’s the appeal of “democratic socialism”, to use a name that unintentionally emphasizes a very real danger of democracy: the tyranny of the majority. It’s a dismal way station along the road to serfdom, to borrow a phrase from Hayek.
Government, however, repeatedly demonstrates it’s sheer incompetence and its expedience as a vehicle for graft. And it’s not as if these failures go unrecognized. Everyone knows it! This is nowhere more true than when the state interferes with private markets or attempts to steer the economy’s direction at either an aggregate or industry level. But here we have a dark irony, as told by Nick Gillespie at Reason:
“Again and again—and in countries all over the world—declines in trust of government correlate strongly with calls for more government regulation in more parts of our lives. ‘Individuals in low-trust countries want more government intervention even though they know the government is corrupt,’ explain the authors of a 2010 Quarterly Journal of Economics paper. That’s certainly the case in the United States, where the size, scope, and spending of government has vastly increased over exactly the same period in which trust and confidence in the government has cratered. In 2018, I talked with one of the paper’s authors, Andrei Shleifer, a Harvard economist who grew up in the Soviet Union before coming to America. Why do citizens ask a government they don’t believe in to bring order? ‘They want regulation,’ he said. ‘They want a dictator who will bring back order.'”
Against all historical evidence and forebodings, the wish for a benevolent dictator! As if it’ll be different this time! Are we all statists? Certainly not me, but the Left is full of them. One prominent example is columnist Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who has expressed the sometimes fashionable view that “things get done” under dictatorships:
“One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. … That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”
Tell it to the interred Kazakh and Uighur Muslims undergoing “reeducation” in China. The Right has its share of statists as well, and it is typically expressed in desires for enforced social conservatism.
People seem to have a vague idea that everyone else must either be misbehaving or in misery. And despite the well-tested fallibility and lack of trust in government, people persist in believing that the public sector can conjure magic to solve their problems. But the state gets bigger and bigger while solving few problems and exacerbating others. In fact, as government grows, it makes rent seeking a more viable alternative to productive effort. Like the giant zero-sum game that it is, the expansion of government provides the very means to pick away at the wealth of others. When faced with these incentives, people most certainly will misbehave on small and large scales!
The truth is that individuals hold the most potent regulatory force in their own hands: the voluntary nature of trade. It protects against over-pricing, under-pricing, and inferior quality along many dimensions, but it demands discipline and a willingness to walk away. It also demands a willingness to put forth productive effort, rather than coveting the property of others, and taking from others via political action. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, if you think things are expensive now, wait till they’re free!