Politics & Policy

The Dangers of Naïve Faith in Big Government

(Larry Downing/Reuters)
Voters are increasingly placing their trust in government to solve their problems, despite its endless record of incompetence.

Last week the New York Times reported that Puerto Rican authorities had discovered at least ten trailers full of food, medicine, and baby supplies that were left to rot as a result of government ineptitude in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. At this point, news stories about such incompetence are so commonplace that the Times’s scoop barely elicited a yawn.

Yet it does — or should — raise a question. Given the ongoing evidence of government’s inability to carry out even its most basic tasks, why do so many Americans want to expand its control over our lives?

The democratic socialists who are all the rage in American politics at the moment have long since run out of foreign examples of socialist nirvana to point to. Venezuela is busy starving its children, while the Danish prime minister is scolding American liberals that “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

Nor does the record of government in this country provide much more on which to hang faith in big government. Yet that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Indeed, every demonstrated government failure seems to lead inevitably to calls for . . . more government.

Has Obamacare driven up the cost of health care while driving down the quality of care? Is Medicare tens of trillions in debt? Has the VA delivered substandard care to American veterans? Well, then, the answer must be to put the government in charge of the entire U.S. health-care system.

Every demonstrated government failure seems to lead inevitably to calls for . . . more government.

Have our government-run schools left millions of poor and minority students behind, despite massive increases in spending? Well, then, the answer must be to spend still more, while attacking private alternatives.

Have more than 100 federal anti-poverty programs and roughly $1 trillion in anti-poverty spending failed to enable the poor to flourish or become self-sufficient? Well, then, we must immediately spend more money on ever-more-complicated schemes.

Is Social Security racing toward insolvency? Then we must expand benefits and impose more restrictions on private retirement options. Have government jobs programs failed to create meaningful and productive work? We’ll just have the government guarantee everyone a job. Have government subsidies and regulations driven up the cost of everything from college to housing? I guess we’ll have to regulate and subsidize more.

No matter how often government disappoints, the Left is ready to forgive and forget.

A naïve faith in big government isn’t strictly a phenomenon of the Left, of course — especially in the age of Trump. Conservatives who long decried government as unable to manage a two-car funeral suddenly argue that it should determine everything from whom we trade with to what parental-leave policies our employers institute. And when it comes to businesses hiring the best foreign talent, Trump-era conservatives increasingly embrace quotas and restrictions more akin to Soviet-style central planning than to the free-market economics that made this country prosperous.

Americans used to be suspicious of populists peddling government solutions to every problem. Not too long ago, even Bill Clinton was declaring that “the era of big government is over” in response to the government’s disastrous track record. But this healthy skepticism has waned in recent years. It is as if the politics of today are immune to empirical results.

Samuel Johnson once facetiously described second marriages as “the triumph of hope over experience.” Given the record of government failure, calls for a bigger more intrusive government might be described as the triumph of hope over common sense.

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Michael TannerMr. Tanner is the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Poverty and Inequality in California and the author of The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor.


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