Libertarian History/Philosophy

From School Cupcake Bans to Ferguson to Iraq: George Will's Unified Field Theory of Contempt for Govt

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In his Washington Post column, George Will offers up "The Cupcake Postulate," a unified field theory of out-of-control government:

Washington's response to the menace of school bake sales illustrates progressivism's ratchet: The federal government subsidizes school lunches, so it must control the lunches' contents, which validates regulation of what it calls "competitive foods," such as vending machine snacks. Hence the need to close the bake sale loophole, through which sugary cupcakes might sneak: Foods sold at fundraising bake sales must, with some exceptions, conform to federal standards.

What has this to do with police, from Ferguson, Mo., to your home town, toting marksman rifles, fighting knives, grenade launchers and other combat gear? Swollen government has a shriveled brain: By printing and borrowing money, government avoids thinking about its proper scope and actual competence. So it smears mine-resistant armored vehicles and other military marvels across 435 congressional districts because it can.

And instead of making immigration policy serve the nation's values and workforce needs, government, egged on by conservatives, aspires to emulate East Germany along the Rio Grande, spending scores of billions to militarize a border bristling with hardware bought with previous scores of billions. Much of this is justified by the United States' longest losing "war," the one on drugs. Is it, however, necessary for NASA to have its own SWAT team?…

Contempt for government cannot be hermetically sealed; it seeps into everything. Which is why cupcake regulations have foreign policy consequences. Americans, inundated with evidence that government is becoming dumber and more presumptuous, think it cannot be trusted to decipher foreign problems and apply force intelligently.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Marian Tupy of the excellent HumanProgress site.

Most (if not all) of the examples of stupid government in Will's column have already been discussed and reported on here at Reason.com.

He's right that confidence in government is plummeting mostly because of the simultaneously stupid and overreaching actions of politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats at all levels. Recognizing such a reality may be the beginning of (libertarian) wisdom, but as I've written before, it also carries a very serious potential risk. Counterintuitively, distrust in government may lead to calls for more government. Consider

the 2010 paper "Regulation and Distrust," written by Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, and Andrei Shleifer and published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Drawing on World Values Survey data from the past several decades for over 50 countries, the authors help explain what they call "one of the central puzzles in research on political beliefs: Why do people in countries with bad governments want more government intervention?"

The authors make a distinction between "high-trust" and "low-trust" countries. In the former, most people have positive feelings about business and government and the general level of regulation is relatively low. In "low-trust countries," the opposite is true and citizens "support government regulation, fully recognizing that such regulation leads to corruption." As an example, they point to differing attitudes toward government-mandated wages in former socialist countries that transitioned to market economies. "Approximately 92 percent of Russians and 82 percent of East Germans favor wage control," they write, naming two low-trust populations. In Scandinavia, Great Britain, and North American countries, where there are higher levels of trust in the public and private sectors, less than half the population does. As a final kicker, Aghion et al. suggest that increased regulation sows yet more distrust, which in turn engenders more regulation….

It turns out that government may be growing not in spite of our confidence in it, but because of our lack of confidence in it to  This self-defeating spiral will only get worse if the United States fails to stem its slide toward being a low-trust country. The first step should entail the government and politicians recognizing that they've got a problem. As with any rehab plan, it would do the government—and the rest of us—well to start small and take it one day at a time.

Read the whole thing.

A major ray of hope—indeed, the beam of sunshine that's warming up this libertarian moment—is really the ways in which people are creating workarounds that simply bypass government whenever possible. Taxi regulations screw consumers? Create Uber. Public-school educators are unresponsive? Create your own curriculum or even your own school. Can't sell unpasteurized milk products? Create a buyers club. Major parties won't listen? Create the Tea Party. And on and on.

As Matt Welch and I discussed at length in The Declaration of Independents, workarounds are a great thing and easier to pull off than ever, but they have serious limitations (witness foreign policy, Ferguson, the drug war, and so much more). It's well past time that we start insisting on a limited, trustworthy government that is actually competent and restrained at the few things that it should be doing. That will not only reduce the desire for more government, it will free up even more time and resources for the free-range experiments in living that will actually make the world better, more interesting, and more prosperous.

Last fall, Matt Welch and I talked with George Will about his "libertarian evolution." Watch now: