The Infallibility of Government

Originally posted in Feb 2005 at The Unrepentant Individual


“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.

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