One of the great though unintentional laugh lines in President Obama's State of the Union address last night came when he tapped the country's longest-running punchline, Joe Biden, to head up a "new moonshot" that would "cure cancer."
As Peter Suderman astutely noted, "It's a dubious idea—and its indicative of both the problems with Obama's final State of the Union and the larger failures of his presidency." And that's simply from a metaphoric perspective. The moon landing was an engineering problem and hence nowhere nearly as complicated as dealing with cancer. And the idea of putting Joe Biden in charge of anything other than (maybe) free mustache rides or the uncomfortable nuzzling of children? Seriously, WTF?
But once all the laughter dies in sorrow, let's think seriously about the problem of delivering on large-scale government programs, whether we're talking about reaching the moon (or Mars), helping the Gulf coast rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, or improving traffic congestion in Southern California or in Boston. The fact is that people have less and less faith and confidence in government, for reasons that are pretty obvious: Government routinely overpromises and underdelivers, whether it's in terms of access to health care (or containing costs of same), improving education, or goosing house prices.
At first blush, cynicism (or is it realism?) toward government is an unalloyed win for libertarians. After all, we want less government, and the less people trust government, the less of it they'll demand, right?
As I've argued elsewhere, the answer is not as straightforward as we might think. In fact, polities with "low-trust" in government routinely clamor for more government.
[Read] 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.
Fear and distrust of government in America are at post-war highs. What if the size and scope of government, also at post-war highs by most measures, is growing not in spite of such attitudes but because of them?
The smart response from a libertarian perspective would be to lay out the conditions and contexts for legitimate and efficient deployment of government actions.
I'm not an anarchist, or even what might be called a "foundationalist libertarian." That is, I'm less interested in debating and enacting philosophically ideal versions of the size of the state. I'm a directional libertarian in that I want things to move in the right direction, toward more individual freedom and choice. Hence, I would prefer all drugs (including prescription drugs) to be fully legal and available to adults, but I'll take the legalization of pot as a good step in the right direction. I'd prefer that government get out of providing education, but I'm totally behind the idea of providing individual students and their parents a wider range of options right here and now via "backpack funding," charter schools, and similar measures. I don't think the state should be involved in marriage, but until it butts the hell out, it shouldn't discriminate against any two individuals who want to get hitched. To the extent that government provides welfare payments, they should be in cold, hard cash and not restricted forms such as housing vouchers or food stamps. You get the picture, right?
When it comes to large undertakings, the government should not only be held accountable for its failures but for its successes. And I think we libertarians should promote and support policies and mechanisms that are more likely to lead to success rather than failure. Which leads to less trust in government. Which might just in turn lead to more calls for government action.
While listening to Obama yammer on last night, I thought of the following 2009 interview Reason TV conducted with William D. Eggers and John O'Leary, author of If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government (both of them worked at Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this site, back in the 1990s). I hope you'll find it an interesting conversation (certainly their book is and I recommend grabbing a copy). Their controlling metaphor is the Apollo project and the insights they bring to bear on what it takes for government to succeed are compelling. And they just might be the preconditions for actually getting to a point where we trust government enough to do certain things well so we can start pruning it back in all the places it shouldn't be.