Originally posted on Random Notes on September 8, 2009
People are drawn to all manner of authoritarianism, almost everyone, at some point in his life has thought, if only in a moment of weakness, that this act or that should be banned. Rare is the individual who has unflinchingly understood at every moment the principle that by respecting the choices of others he also receives from them respect for his own. We all have stumbled and thought that the state may be able to solve some particularly vexing problem. Some of us later relented, realized the state was a poor choice of tools, and moved on. Many more have continued to believe that the state is the answer. Nor am I talking of just socialists, or even liberals, even on the nominally conservative side of the equation many dilute their commitment to small government with a liberal helping of exceptions ( "Smaller Government , Fair Weather Friends and Special Cases","Inescapable Logic", "Negative and Positive Rights", "All Or Nothing Thinking")1. For example, social conservatives, many of whom argue that the state power should never be allowed to meddle in private enterprise, unless it is to uphold decency and public morals. Or the many supposedly free market conservatives who accept that trade should be unfettered by any regulations, until it crosses national boundaries, at which point their commitment to freedom vanishes.
Whatever their motive, whatever their overall political ideology, there is one thing that all those calling for statist2 solutions have in common, and that is the disappointment they will almost inevitably feel should they get their wish.
Before anyone makes the mistake of thinking this another discourse on the inefficiency of state management3, allow me to dispel that belief. I have written plenty on that topic, and probably will again, but for now I am interested in another, related topic. That is the reason people make such calls, the motives behind their call for state intervention, and more important, the reality that shall greet the success of their plans, and how likely it is that they shall find the reality disappointing when compared to the dream that spawned it.
There are essentially three reasons for adopting statist solutions. Though two of them are just variations on the same argument. First, there is the solution adopted because "life's not fair", that is the statist solution adopted in an effort to address something that is seen as inequitable in the nature of reality itself. Sometimes this may be the outcome of past human action, but the solution itself is aimed at addressing a state of affairs and not ongoing human behavior4. The second set are those adopted because it is believed that people have malicious motives and are exploiting others. Finally, there are those statist solutions adopted because people are inclined to make bad decisions from which they must be protected. It is this final pair which can be lumped together, as it is unlikely people can be exploited unless they also make bad decisions, and, even if they can, in practice efforts to restrain malicious motives and discourage bad decisions tend to come across in the same manner5.
Most often the argument is some combination of these arguments, for instance, the argument for a heavy inheritance tax is presented as both an existential inequity (some people inherit more than others) and human folly (the rich unfairly favor their offspring). Sometimes the combination is not even obviously one of these arguments6, for example the current push for universal health care, but once looked at carefully, it will be evident that every statist proposition rests on these arguments. For example, in the case of universal health care, the argument is based on unfair reality, in the argument that many are too poor to get health care, or do not have jobs that provide it, human malice, in terms of greedy insurers and bosses unwilling to cover low level workers, and human folly, in terms of people abusing emergency rooms for primary care, not planning ahead, and not providing for their own health care. Generally the focus is on the first, unless a scapegoat is needed, when the argument from malice comes to the fore. The argument from folly is generally ignored, as it casts doubts on the merit of the uninsured, but from time to time it is brought up, especially when someone wants to lament our overcrowded hospitals.
There is one other factor that must be present. One can see a situation where life is unfair, or even where people are making bad decisions, and still not be motivated to involve the government in resolving it. What is required for a statist solution to seem reasonable is a belief that one knows better than the principals involved how to resolve the situation. That is, to put it in slightly critical terms, one must be sufficiently arrogant to think he knows best how to solve the problem. (See "Appealing to Arrogance".)
And that is the primary source for dissatisfaction for those who promote statist solutions. Von Mises said that socialism is an expression of petty resentments. I won't go that far, but it is true that everyone who imagines a command economy always pictures it being run as if the dictator shared all of his own valuations and prejudices. But, in reality, except for the lucky few who end up being the dictator, or staffing the ruling administration, their wishes get no more consideration than those who did not support socialism, that is, none at all. Instead, they find themselves in the same position as the man in the street, petitioning the state to get their wishes honored. In other words, rather than the small but definite voice they had in a free society, both in their role of free citizen and int heir role as consumer, driving the economy, they now have only as much power as the administrators choose to give them, that is, usually, none at ll.
In fact, for the most part, those who promote state intervention will find that their total satisfaction will be even less than it was before they got their wish. As, in the free market, they might not have had any power over others, but at least they had absolute control over their own affairs. Once they manage to give the state absolute power over whatever topic strikes their fancy, they will find, not only dot heir wishes have little control over the state, and thus no control over others, just as before, but now they no longer have control over their own affairs as well. In other words, they certainly sacrificed total control over their own affairs for the slight chance that the state may enact their wishes in terms of controlling the affairs of others.
It is a situation destined to disappoint almost everyone. Excepting the dictator or the ruling bureaucracy, no one who promoted intervention will find themselves more satisfied with the reality.
But that is a bit abstract, so let us look at a few concrete examples.
First, let us look at the authoritarians of the right, in their most mild form. Let us start with social conservatives and then move on to paleo-con protectionists (who are identical to protectionists of the left in that regard). After that, let us move along to the full scale socialists, and look at all out income redistribution. And finally, let us take a very quick glance at nationalized health care. In every case, I can promise that the likelihood of dissatisfaction is quite high.
Let's start with those promoting government oversight of content in the media, be it all media or just broadcasts on the public airwaves. Everyone who promotes such a policy has in mind some very specific rules, what they consider "common decency", and they also assume that their own views are so self-evident that all right thinking people share them. The problem is, that is hardly ever the case. While everyone promoting such a view thinks that a regime of "moral censorship" would correspond with their own personal morality, the truth is, unless they are running the system odds are good that the censors will either allow some things they consider immoral or prohibit something they consider ethical. And that is where the problem arises. Under a free market, they could protest, contact advertisers, stop spending money on advertised goods, cancel cable service and so on, using their own actions to influence the decisions of each private broadcaster. Under a censorship regime, they can do none of that. The broadcasters have the ultimate excuse, what they have broadcast meets the guidelines, so it must be acceptable. And so those who disagree with the censors' opinions have only one recourse, protesting the actions of government. And we all know how well that works.
It is ironic, but those who advocate decency in broadcasting would be far better off with a government which did nothing to control content than under the strong censorship regime they tend to favor.
Protectionism presents a similar problem7. Generally it is presented by any proponents as a means to prevent the "shipping of jobs overseas" and to "protect jobs in our nation." But there is another truth that often goes unnoticed. As I hinted in my parody "I Have Seen The Light", there is no such thing as a consistent protectionist8. As those promoting protectionism are almost always doing so with an eye toward promoting some industry, or perhaps the workers in some industry, they are also aware that some degree of foreign trade is necessary for prosperity. And foreign trade is only possible if it is trad,e that is a two way exchange, which requires admitting foreign goods. And so protectionists, while decrying the entry of foreign workers, or foreign goods, in the are of their interest, also have to quietly ignore foreign goods or workers entering in other industries. Which means that each protectionist has to imagine that a protectionist regime would share his own particular perspective. However, in practice, this is rarely the case, and even if it were, with the next change of government, or even with the existing government changing which lobbyists catch their attention, the rules change form those the protectionist supports to those which harm rather than help him. And so, though a protectionist may imagine that a regime excluding foreign goods will be beneficial, he is far more likely to find, at the end of the day, that protectionism is more harmful than helpful and he is completely disappointed after receiving what he desired for so long.
And that brings us to the most comprehensive redistributionist system imaginable, full communism. Now, in most cases, those advocating communism imagine that there is a small majority holding tremendous troves of wealth, and that enacting a communist system will end up improving their lot in life9. Except under the most extraordinary circumstances, the sheer numbers of the poor and middle classes mean that the amount of wealth they hold will be considerable. Expropriating the rich will not produce the sort of wealth many imagine, and, even if the numbers are impressive, once divided by the monumental number of poor, it will provide very little. And that does not take into account the wealth which must be used to run the intrusive state, as well as the money needed to fund state ventures, which can no longer rely upon private investment, the great stores of private capital having been taken and redistributed. Even ignoring the gradual decline of industry under communism, and the probability of nepotism and corruption, a tremendous number of those who thought they would be recipients end up being donors.
Worse still, once they find the true results of their leveling,t hey have no recourse. Having been reduced to the same level of poverty as everyone else, they find they have no alternative but to accept it. With accumulation of wealth forbidden, with no ability to gather money or to even won anything more than his fellows, he loses all the alternatives of the free market, and finds his only choice is to meekly accept the poverty the state has forced upon him. Anything else is against the law.
And that brings us, at long last, to the current debate over medical reform. Specifically the question of rationing. There are many, many other issues with medical reform10, but I want to focus on rationing alone. And make no mistake, rationing will be an issue. Whatever our initial reform, be it a "public option" nominally competing with private insurance, a single payer insurance system, or outright nationalization of all medical services and free provision, the result will be the same11, eventually the state will be the single source determining what care is available to everyone.
The fact is that there are only so many doctors, only so much equipment, only so many beds, only so much medicine and only so many organs. Everything medical is, in a very real sense, of limited quantity. There is a second fact that many people do not mention. If medial care were free, there is effectively unlimited demand. As medical services take time to use, and some are uncomfortable, there are non-economic factors limiting individual demand (eg. people would want to spend some of their time doing non-medial tasks), but even with those slight checks on demand, free medical care would clearly create a demand far greater than our available supply, or any conceivable supply in the near future.
And so any system, be it private or public, will have limits on what can be provided. As I described in "Who Will Decide", the private system relies upon simple price. By setting the price properly, all who are willing to pay can get the service, and as a bonus, the added money will attract more resources tot he most demanded services, making them eventually cheaper12. Those promoting statist solutions are unhappy with this, and so imagine a system wherein everyone can have access tot he same services without being required to pay, without price deciding who will and won't have access. But, in this, they are setting themselves up for disappointment.
I am sure after the last three examples, you can see how this will work. Those promoting this answer imagine their personal prejudices will control the assignment of medial resources, while, in reality, others will be assigning priorities, which may not match their own. Under a free system, that would make little difference. If they felt treatment of an individual for disease X were important,t hey could contribute money to that person, who would then be able to buy treatment. But once th estate decides who does and does not get care, if the state makes disease X low priority, then there is no way to get treatment for that individual, he simply cannot be treated. Again, the state system looks great, as long as you are the one making all the decisions. Once that is no longer the case, you realize you not only deprived others of their choices, but yourself as well.
Which brings me to a final example, a "bonus example" if you will. That is the many, many nanny state laws we have passed. Laws against smoking, against transfats, against tanning beds, against all manner of items we consider dangerous. The argument being that people cannot be allowed to decide for themselves whether to assume the risk, the risk is too great, and people's ability to reason too limited to let them choose.
What is interesting is to watch the backlash among some who once supported such measures. People who happily exiled smokers tot he outside, then to posts 40 feet from any doorway, and eventually tried to ban smoking even outdoors, find themselves upset that their favorite foods, or their cherished tanning beds, are also banned. And those who once argued that smokers could not make a rational decision about the risks of cigarettes suddenly find themselves imagining that those who could not decide about cigarettes CAN decide about UV-A, UV-B and transfats.
And that is perhaps the best example of all. Having cast man as unable to decide, they did not consider what that truly meant in practice. As they were banning a vice they did not share ("It Doesn't Matter to ME...", "Drug Legalization", "Who Does It Harm?"), they could smugly wonder how anyone could possibly think smoking was worth the risk. But now that they find others looking down upon them for their "foolish" choice, they have rediscovered individual rights, relative risks and benefits ("Absolute Values") and all those other arguments they once dismissed.
As I have argued all along in this post, the statist system is a wonderful answer, at least in many minds, so long as you are making the decisions, or agree with those who do. But such harmony is unlikely to last forever, while the power you confer upon the state will, so, in the end it is far more likely you will not get what you want, will not cast the world in your image, but will instead find yourself being told what to do by someone who thinks you just as foolish as you find the hoi polloi around you.
1. Recently, with the loss of John McCain many have argued that conservatism not only needs such exceptions, but should focus on them, becoming in effect a less statist version of liberalism. I argue against these positions in "Conservatives and the "Big Picture"", "The Party of 'No'?", "Activism As The Only Acceptable Position? ", "I Told You So!", "The Big Lie", "The Big Lie Part II", "A Question" and "Don't Panic". The again, variations of this argument have been going on ever since Goldwater began to move part of the party in a more freedom-oriented direction, and even more so since many libertarians embraced the modern Republican party (myself included, though I no longer embrace the title libertarian). For example, the paleo-cons have long been trying to move the party in a different direction, as I describe in "Misplaced Blame and A Power Play" and "Remember I Predicted It". (Just to clarify my beliefs, as I mention my one time libertarianism, I suggest reading "The Benefits of Federalism" and "Why I Am Not A Libertarian".)
2. By "statist" I mean those solutions involving government intervention not intended solely to protect individual rights. The type of solutions I termed "asymmetrical" in "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government" and "The Single Greatest Weakness". The state is a proper tool for the collective protection of rights or settlement of honest disputes, as I explained in "My Vision of Government", "My Vision of Government Part II", "Revisiting an Old Post" and "Prelude". Beyond that, use of the state is an inappropriate application of physical force, or the threat of physical force, ("An Analogy For Government") and those are the solutions I term "statist".
3. For those interested in that more technical analyses, I deal with education in "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", "Reforming Education", "Why Private Schools Win", "A Contradiction" and "Skeptics? Really? I Beg to Differ", and the proposed changes to health care in "The Insurance Sham", "First Kill All the Lawyers, Looking Back at Katrina", "A Cure for Cancer?", "Government Efficiency", "High Cost of Medical Care", "The Problem With Tort Reform", "Clarification of My Argument for a Free Market in Medicine", "Cutting "Costs"", "Misunderstanding Profits", "Contradiction", "AARP Proves They Are Partisan Hacks and other Thoughts on Health Care Reform", "Can Anyone Make Sense of This?", "Envy And Analogy", "Confirmation, Yet Again", "Red Herring", "Who Will Decide" and "My Health Care Plan". I treat this argument in more general terms in "Liberalism's False Dichotomy ", "Greed Versus Evil", "Fairness and the Free Market" and "Planning For Imperfection". Finally, I treat the topic of motivation in the posts "Bureaucratic Management" , "The Bureaucratic Mind", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises" and "Killing the Railroads".
4. I include in this category, for the most part, efforts to streamiline the economy and otherwise scientifically manage the economy ("The Limits of Technocracy", "Technocrats", "The Limits of Econometrics", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "Knowing Our Limits", "Greed Versus Evil"). Some of these overlap with the other motives, as I discuss, but for the most part technocratic solutions tend to be sold on existing inefficiencies, rather than human mistakes. So they fall under the category of life's unfairness rather than human fallibility.
5. Long time readers are quite familiar with this argument, that statism almost inevitably rests on the argument for human incompetence or evil. My more recent writing on this topic can be found in "The Citizen Dichotomy", "Man's Nature and Government" ,"In A Nutshell", "Cognitive Dissonance Part 2". The difference here is the addition of the argument that sometimes statism is also justified by appeals to life's unfairness independent of humans. In some ways I addressed this in "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse", "Subsidizing Irresponsibility and Poor Planning" and others, but the explicit statement of this principle is new to this post.
6. I was at one time going to mention envy as a possible additional motive, when it struck me that I had myself fallen into the error I describe, mistaking a combination of these motives for something else. After all, what is envy but one individual's belief that life has treated him unfairly and given another unjust rewards? So even simple envy is nothing more than the first motive in disguise. (Sometimes with the addition of malice, as those envious of others often ascribe sinister motives or evil deeds to them.)
7. I have covered this topic so many times that I cannot provide all relevant links. If you want to get a more technical understanding of protectionism and the arguments against it, you can start with "Proof Keynes (and Krugman) Are Insane", "Technocrats", "Some Confirmation", "Has No One Heard Of Lord Say?", "The Rubber Yardstick" and "Protectionism Right and Left". Links in those posts should take you to most of my writing on the topic.
8. In many ways, protectionism parallels the practice of pragmatism as I described in "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism" and "Pragmatism Revisited". They also match the argument I made in "The Endless Cycle of Intervention", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "The Political Spectrum", "Inconsistencies in Historical Perspectives" and "Cigarettes, Sudan and Abortion" . They adopt what sounds like a consistent position, but in practice allow so many exceptions that their "theory" is more like a set of specific unrelated rules. Then again, as the theory underlying protectionism is itself self-contradictory, it makes sense that the implementation would, of necessity, be inconsistent and riddled with exceptions.
9. For our purposes we will ignore the fact that lack of a price structure means communism will inherently be less productive than a free market, and will suffer from a chronic misdirection of resources. This would mean that the communist state would become ever less wealthy, seeing its accumulated riches slowly erode, and so even the small pie which was redistributed would begin to shrink, leaving everyone less and less wealthy with time. See "Misunderstanding Profits", "Cutting "Costs"", "Utopian Pipe Dream" and "The Limits of "Scientific" Management".
10. See footnote 3, above, for links to relevant articles.
11. I will not make the argument here, but there is every reason to believe that a "public option" will inevitably lead to a de facto or de jure single payer system, and there is little difference in practice between single payer system, where medical providers are nominally privately employed, and outright nationalization. If the state is paying all bills, the service might as well be nationalized. For some arguments on this topic see "Clarification of My Argument for a Free Market in Medicine", "AARP Proves They Are Partisan Hacks and other Thoughts on Health Care Reform" and "One Real Life Example".
12. As I described in "High Cost of Medical Care" and "The Insurance Sham", the way insurance is handle din the US has short circuited this system somewhat. However, the obvious solution is to remove the statist intrusion which caused the malformation, not to add yet more distortions in hopes that eventually the various twistings will balance one another out.
Clearly this builds upon a number of concepts established in earlier posts. I mentioned several in the footnotes, but there are countless other posts which also relate tot his topic. As a start, I would recommend looking at the articles linked in "Planning For Imperfection", "Greed Versus Evil", "First Kill All the Lawyers, Looking Back at Katrina", "When Help Hurts", "My Vision of Government Part II", "The Triumph of Good", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II" and "The Benefits of Federalism", and following the links in those posts to my earlier arguments. If any other articles come to mind as being especially apropos, I will add another postscript listing them.
Originally Posted in Examining the War on Drugs on 2009/09/29.