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Can Government Do Anything Well?

Comment

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.

In other words: No, they can't! — which happens to be the title of my new book.

Free people, however, do perform miracles, which is why "No's" subtitle is: "Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed."

Those who believe an elite group of central planners can accomplish more than free people need some economics. I hope my book helps.

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. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at <a href="http://www.johnstossel.com" <http://www.johnstossel.com>>johnstossel.com</a>. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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Comments

6 Comments | Post Comment
The title of your piece was misleading. What does the government do well? I perceive only one element does well. The armed forces do well in spite of hazards and restraints put on them by lawyers and politicians, especially leftist ones. As far as doing anything cheaply, forget it.
I believe the health insurance business was started due to wage and price controls put in during WWII. Wages were fixed so fringe benefits (health insurance) was used to entice workers. I believe the high cost and inflation in college costs is related to government loans and grants. The colleges then take all they can get and then try to extract all they can from the students or their parents. Otherwise why have college costs risen so much more than other cost.
In just about any problem if you look what caused it, it was government. What destroyed the black family and many poor white families also. Who allowed ads for prescription drugs to be pushed on patients? Who allowed public service unions? Health care costs-government again. Scooters for everyone. What about the golf carts for "free?" There is no free. Somewhere someone pays for it and it is not people on welfare who do the paying-or the backing of the loans.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Donald W. Bales
Wed Apr 11, 2012 2:09 PM
Dear John
On 13 April 2011 program you had segment on congressional wasteful spend to send out campaign litature.
We on 16 Feb 2010 I filed a Federal Election Complaint on this very matter. It was given a Matter Under Review MUR # 6251, against Walt Minnick. Thhis waste runs into the hundreds of million of dollars year after year. My complaint and the rulings of the FEC are available on the FEC web site FEC.Gov.
I still believe that this type of waste could save vast taxpayer's fund. Further with 535 member, and they're all doing it, could give COLAS to our seniors and better use government funds. If you would like to know more please feel free to contact me.
Sinceerely
David Olson
Comment: #2
Posted by: David Olson
Sun Apr 15, 2012 3:35 PM
Dear John
On 13 April 2011 program you had segment on congressional wasteful spend to send out campaign litature.
We on 16 Feb 2010 I filed a Federal Election Complaint on this very matter. It was given a Matter Under Review MUR # 6251, against Walt Minnick. Thhis waste runs into the hundreds of million of dollars year after year. My complaint and the rulings of the FEC are available on the FEC web site FEC.Gov.
I still believe that this type of waste could save vast taxpayer's fund. Further with 535 member, and they're all doing it, could give COLAS to our seniors and better use government funds. If you would like to know more please feel free to contact me.
Sinceerely
David Olson
Comment: #3
Posted by: David Olson
Sun Apr 15, 2012 3:36 PM
you're so right. Pl do a similar show on govt intervention in medicine and hospitals, which has increased the cost, increased bureaucracy, paperwork, and decreased the efficiency, reduced the competition. THERE IS NO QUALITY WITHOUT COMPETITION AND NO EXCELLENCE WITHOUT PRIVATE ENTERPRISE.
Comment: #4
Posted by: h harris
Mon Apr 16, 2012 5:30 AM
Government comes up with some of the most illogical legislation. Back in the 70s and 80s Congress enacted the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision. These laws unfairly reduce the Social Security benefits of Public workers in 15 states who work for a state or local government that is not covered by Social Security. The GPO/WEP formulas are arbitrary and are without a well-founded basis for the reduction calculations that are used. These laws were NOT designed to affect the middle or low wage earners that it deeply penalizes - especially low income women like me.
On January 6, 2012 I retired as an Administrative Assistant from Wright State U. Prior to this job, I worked 10 yrs. in Private sector jobs and paid into Social Security. I took time off from working to raise a family. I later returned to work for 10 years in a Public sector job at WSU in which I did not pay Social Security but contributed to the OH Public Employees Retirement System. At the time I received by first pension check of $406.00 from OPERS, the GPO and the WEP reduced my Social Security benefits by over $5,000 ANNUALLY. If my husband dies before me, I will once again be penalized by the GPO. Lucky me! I'll be penalized THREE times. The money that I paid into Piggy Bank A (Social Security) has nothing to do with the money I (not the taxpayer) paid into Piggy Bank B. The government's argument is that I would be "double dipping". The offsets were based on a decision to treat pensions from certain public positions as if they were additional Social Security. IF I HAD NEVER WORKED A DAY IN MY LIFE, MY MONTHLY INCOME WOULD BE MORE THAN MY COMBINED PENSION AND REDUCED SOCIAL SECURITY AT RETIREMENT! I'm being penalized for being ambitious. Government is indeed brilliant.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Sandra Kidwell
Thu Apr 26, 2012 11:12 AM
Re: Donald W. Bales

I have been in the Armed Forces for 18 years. I can tell you it does not do that well either. Yes it does it, but with as much waste as the rest of the government. In addition, it also does it with needless deaths of some of my fellow Soldiers.
Comment: #6
Posted by: SCOTT
Fri Apr 27, 2012 4:35 PM
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