Thursday, January 19, 2006

The State as Ultimate Problem Solver

"I love Ellen because she is going to do so much for us. With Ellen, anything is possible."
- Pandora Matati, former Liberian warlord gang member

“Ellen” in this instance is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the new president of Liberia. Not without reason, the press has focused on the importance of her being the first female head of state in Africa. But the sentiments expressed by Mr. Matati are to me of far greater interest.

The economist Daniel Klein has written a marvelous essay in the Independent Review called “The People’s Romance: Why People Love Government (As Much as They Do). (It is available here.) In it, he explores the psychological underpinnings for the desire of people to have the state tackle problems, even if they observe empirically that the state is likely to do a poor job. He attributes this to a psychological imperative to be part of a high-minded collective activity, and says that advocating individual choice will always seem inferior because it ignores this instinctive drive to be part of something bigger and more noble.

The interplay between cognitive psychology and political behavior is still in its infancy, but I think another result is also tenable. That is the one expressed in the remark above – a deep faith, especially but not exclusively in societies emerging from years of tyranny, that government is the Great Problem Solver. I remember that shortly before the first elections in Indonesia after the Suharto dictatorship was overthrown, the BBC interviewed an impoverished street peddler about what she thought about the election. She was almost delirious with excitement, confident that the replacement of Suharto with a democratically elected leader would make her life immeasurably better.

Her answer has always haunted me, because it is indicative of the way we profoundly believe, and indeed want to believe, that government is the way we harness our best instincts for The Public Good. In the U.S. at least it was not always thus. In the founding generation there were schools of thought that echo even now. There was the Jefferson vision, which was not just an angry vision about the rights of man – try to take them, if you dare - to be free but the free society as the good society. The free society would allow, after all, citizens to “pursue happiness.” In modern times some strains of libertarian thought argue in favor of market solutions on these pragmatic grounds – because they work better, and mean that ultimately people are happier.

But then there is the dismal view, with Madison perhaps the best-known proponent. The function of the checks and balances is not to enable happiness but to protect us from one another, and from our government. This has very strong echoes in the modern public choice movement, which has built a vast scholarly foundation for Madisonian ideas by arguing that the people who work for the state are no worse than those they govern, but neither are they any better. Given power, they will use it in their self-interest. Since their power (buttressed ultimately by their power to tax, to imprison and their control of the military) is far greater than that of the citizenry, restraining the state so that it finds it difficult to break out of the fence imposed between the tasks only it can do and those that it must not do becomes imperative.

But this vision, consistent with the conservative view of man as always prone to causing trouble given the opportunity rather than as the raw material for “social progress,” has run aground in recent years. Particularly in developing countries but in the advanced ones too, government has become such an omnipresent force – where so many of us turn for our retirement income, to adjudicate disputes with our fellow citizens, to decide what is ethical and what is not in biomedical research – that we naturally turn to it when we see problems in need of solving. The press is the worst in this regard. If people are living on the streets, or a medicine is tied to adverse side effects, or something else in a complex world full of tradeoffs is not ideal, the reporter always first calls some assistant under-secretary of something or other and asks him what the government is doing about this problem, not questioning whether that is a problem the government should be trying to do something about.

But the empirical record of government as problem-solver does not inspire confidence. And so people like that Indonesian peddler and the retired Liberian soldiers will quickly learn that government as it is rather than as they imagine it will not in fact solve all of their problems, but will simply reshape them. A loss of confidence in democracy, rather than in the ability of the state to substitute for voluntary cooperation as a way to resolve problems, will follow quickly. In the advanced nations, particularly in Europe, where government is the provider of health, welfare, and protection from all of life’s nastiness, there is growing crisis of confidence in government institutions. In other societies (Venezuela, e.g.) there is a supine willingness to transfer power to the Big Man so that he can get things done. When the Big Man fails, something else has to be tried, and the historical record of what happens after that moment arrives does not inspire confidence.

To be fair, Ms Johnson-Sirleaf is a vast improvement over what came before her – the warlord president Charles Taylor. But that is not setting the bar very high. Ironically, the more she is asked to do, the worse she will do it, and Liberians, if they see their leader as savior, will find themselves no closer to a decent society than the day she took office. There is a lesson in that for all of us.


Anonymous Libertarian Jason said...


3:36 PM  
Anonymous rws said...

Yet more food for thought. Thanks

6:10 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home