People don’t understand the private sector. They don’t like it. Intuitively, it seems selfish. Most people are busy trying to run their own lives. They’re grateful to politicians who want to take charge. It seems intuitive to think that a smart group of planners concerned about the collective good can accomplish more than free people pursing their own interests individually in the private sector. But history is filled with examples of how the solutions politicians propose create new problems without solving the old. Urban renewal wiped out entire neighborhoods without improving cities, mortgage subsidies created a damaging financial bubble, the war on drugs created a prison-industrial complex while barely taking a dent out of drug abuse. The list goes on and on.
The few politicians who manage, often against overwhelming odds, to successfully expand the sphere of private action rarely get rewarded for their trouble. Margaret Thatcher saved Britain—and got thrown out. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) may get recalled for trying to cut the budget and push back against public sector unions. Hong Kong went from Third World to First World in just 50 years because it had economic freedom. But when I went to Hong Kong and interviewed people, they didn’t know why they were prosperous. They just talked about their problems and how government should solve them.
In Chile, Jose Piñera created a privatized Social Security system during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship that has helped save the country from bankruptcy. Most everyone in the country, which has since become free and democratic, has a personal savings account for retirement. But when I traveled to Chile, thinking that I would find people celebrating their financial independence, nobody was. They just said things like “My investment fund charges me too many fees for my private account.”
In January, The New York Times ran a profile of a rising political star in Chile. Camila Vallejo is 23 years old, and she routinely inspires mass demonstrations. On the say-so of this young lady, thousands gathered in front of the presidential palace last June to protest educational inequalities by dressing like zombies and performing a choreographed routine to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Vallejo is attractive and brilliant. She’s also a communist. Communism appeals to people, no matter how many times it fails.
Liberty is counterintuitive. It takes hard work to overcome the brain’s attraction to simple-sounding solutions. It’s not easy to convince people that sometimes the best way for governments to address a problem is to do less, not more. It’s easier to admire the activist or politician who talks about helping the less fortunate than it is to cheer on a hustler who wants to get rich by selling you stuff. Those of us who see expanding the private sphere as the best way to help the most people have an uphill battle in making our case.
There Always Ought to Be a Law
Most people see a world full of problems that can best be tackled via wisely applied laws. They assume it’s just the laziness, stupidity, or indifference of politicians that prevents the problems from being fixed. But government is force, and government is inefficient. The inefficient use of force creates more problems than it solves.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to make us safer in the air after 9/11, thanks to the supervision of an army of government employees rifling through our bags. Then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said, “You can’t professionalize if you don’t federalize.” And that just makes sense to people. Since the TSA was created, the number of people it employs has quadrupled. By the time the public grew irritated at the intrusive and inefficient new airport security system, the bureaucracy was too entrenched to roll back.
But all it takes is one government success to justify 20 (or 200) failures. The best example of this is seat belts and cars. Government enthusiasts love citing the federal requirement that carmakers install seat belts, which took effect in 1968, to ridicule objections to any new law, no matter how unrelated. Even libertarians often feel like they have to say, “Well, OK. Maybe sometimes the government is useful.”
While it’s true that Volvo was advertising seat belts before they were required by the government, it’s also true that most people didn’t buy them. Seat belt adoption happened much faster because of the government mandate, which included varying state laws requiring people to actually wear those federally mandated seat belts. Aren’t the estimated 10,000 lives saved each year for the last three decades worth it?
The hard-core libertarian position is to say: Even in that case, maybe not. We just don’t know. Because the mandate to install belts came from the federal government, we ended up with just one seat belt standard, and with further innovation being blocked. If you were an auto company and you thought you had a better seat belt, you’d be an idiot to introduce it, because if one person died, trial lawyers would pounce all over you. It’s more prudent to just go with the standard. If there were competition, there might be six types of seat belts, all of which might be safer and more comfortable. Maybe more of us would wear them and maybe more than 30,000 total lives would have been saved in the long run.
So even the best example of benevolent legislation is full of holes. Still, the case for freedom doesn’t have anywhere near the intuitive appeal of “Click it or ticket.”
When the default setting is to solve every problem with a new law, it’s hardly surprising that government continues to grow. What’s especially disappointing in the 21st century, however, is that fewer people in politics even talk about cutting the overall size of government. Particularly when they’re in power.
When the GOP won control of the House of Representatives in 2010, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) claimed his party wanted to make big cuts. When he was sworn in, he declared, “Our spending has caught up with us.…No longer can we kick the can down the road.” But when NBC anchorman Brian Williams asked him to name a single program “we could do without,” Boehner said, “I don’t think I have one off the top of my head.” Even a Republican leader who was elected on fiscally conservative rhetoric didn’t yet know what he wanted to cut?