EIDE: In your book, you’re talking about a fundamental critique of politics, and your recommendation is that we rethink our tendency to look to politics to solve these types of problems for us.
WILLIAMSON: We spend a great deal of time talking about “what should government do?” We spend less time talking about the more important question, which is “what can government do?” As we’ve had crime going down, we’ve been having this weird debate about gun policy. You’ve got people now making guns with 3-D printers. Just as a practical matter, this is simply not something that can be regulated in the long term. “Can we enforce gun laws?” becomes a much more interesting question to me than what sort of gun laws should we have. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, 20 years from now, simply collecting taxes, at a level that’s anything comparable to what we have now, will become a real technical challenge. New technologies, social changes, people’s ability to work internationally, the creation of better banking privacy laws and institutions might make that really difficult. So as we have this debate now about what should tax rates be and how much redistribution should there be, we should be looking more towards the horizon and a time in which those questions may become moot.
EIDE: And you’re an optimist, you think that, despite what people say about what has happened to social capital and the weakness of communities, that there is hope that that those types of challenges can still be mastered.
WILLIAMSON: Yes, it’s been a pretty down time for a lot of people, and there’s a lot of pessimism out there. But it’s worth reminding people, and reminding them often, that we are not a poor country and we aren’t savages. We’re not going to let people starve in the streets, even if we have to cut back on city and state budgets and the federal budget. We’ve got resources to deal with the problems that I’m most concerned about, which are problems related to the conditions for people who can’t take care of themselves. Children we don’t expect to be responsible for their lives, very old people who can no longer work, people who are disabled, addicts and people with mental health problems, which are the main source of our homeless population in the cities. If you add all those problems together, you get a pretty big bucket of issues that you have to deal with, but, in a $17 trillion economy, we’ve got a lot of money to throw at those problems. It’s not a question of resources—it’s never been a question of resources—it’s a question of how we marshal them.
My thanks to the Manhattan Institute for the discussion.