Overview: Questioning a Cultural Presumption
When it’s broken, we say, Fix it! This logic, we assume, applies to politics, which today is being called “corrupt,” “disgraceful,” and even stronger adjectives unsuitable for a PG-13 audience. The current disappointment with government, we suppose, should have a solution. It’s just a matter of time until the right leadership steps forward, or the correct reforms are put in place, and political life will return to a happy, or at least tolerable, normal.
This optimism, I’m afraid, is unwarranted. The prevailing beliefs about government, about what it is and what it can do, are flawed. As long as we maintain those assumptions and expectations, we are bound to get a government that we disparage, but which, at the same time, we continue to embrace.
The suggestion that we are simply stuck with frustrating big government is bound to be unsettling. Before we begin our exploration, therefore, it might be useful to offer a brief summary of the argument of this book, to explain its iconoclastic direction.
We start with the obvious point that public approval of government and its personnel has been declining. Although this loss of faith seems to be a modern phenomenon, it appears to be the latest phase of a decline that has been occurring for many centuries, but which has picked up speed in more recent times. This broad trend can be traced to a number of historical developments. One is the recent emergence of the freedom to criticize government and government leaders. Although we take this freedom for granted today, we often forget how very recent this openness is. Even in the more advanced countries, freedom of speech is no more than about three centuries old. Before that, mum was the word. If you publicly said that rulers were corrupt or that government policy was foolish, you were accused of treason and quickly killed.
A second change is the growth in communication technology, in our ways of finding out that rulers might be corrupt and their policies foolish. In earlier times, national leaders were far-off abstractions, practically gods in the heavens. They resided in towering castles, rode in glittering carriages, and were surrounded by ranks of minions who bowed and scraped at their glory. Knowing nothing about them, people could assume that they possessed majestic qualities of wisdom and rectitude, and that their policies were wise and effective.
Then, starting in the 18th century with the development of journals and gazettes, the public began to see rulers as human beings, and began to notice errors and shortcomings in the way they managed things. The development of the rotary press and cheap newspapers in the early 19th century expanded public awareness, and the invention of the telegraph in the mid-19th century greatly reduced the time between events and the public awareness of them. The real explosion in communication came in the 20th century, with radio in the 1930s, television in the 1950s, and the Internet in the 1990s. As a result of this vast expansion in communication, today the smallest peccadilloes in the political class are subject to intense amplification.
This free, open, and intensive coverage has conveyed negative messages that have lowered the reputation of government and government officials.
However, this decline in public approval has not caused a general turning away from government. The public is much better informed about shortcomings of politicians, and it has detailed knowledge about the waste and mismanagement of many programs. Yet it still looks to government to provide increasing levels of services, and to dictate behavior in a wider range of activities. This is the political malaise of the modern age: the public has lost confidence in big government, but wants more of it. People have lost confidence in government officials, and disparage them at every turn, yet they want to put more responsibilities in their hands.
The explanation of this paradox is the existence of a deep, non-rational loyalty: an attachment to government that can be called a cultural presumption. This kind of loyalty is much more than an opinion or a belief. A cultural presumption is a widely shared, unquestioned conviction that emerges over many centuries of historical evolution. It has no specific author. No great mind ever wrote it down in a treatise, and no assembly of great minds ever gathered to debate it and endorse it. And this kind of attachment is not explicitly evaluated. It is not treated as a testable idea subject to evidence and arguments for and against it. It is a diffuse understanding that drifts along in the social atmosphere, unconsciously absorbed from the earliest years of childhood. To some degree, its very antiquity seems to validate it. It is a belief that seems to have stood “the test of time.”
The human race has seen a number of these cultural presumptions over the ages. One example was the faith in human sacrifices made to unseen gods as a system for warding off community dangers. No one sat down one day and said, “Evidence and logic shows that there is a god capable of turning rain on and off, and this god likes to see people die, and will give us rain if we slay fellow humans in its name.” There wasn’t any convention of community leaders that debated this idea and then voted to adopt it. The faith in this god-sacrifice system oozed out of the social woodwork over many generations.
Once the attachment to a cultural presumption is overcome, it is easy to look back and criticize it as a mistaken belief. For example, today we are appalled at the idea of human sacrifices to a rain god. But when a cultural presumption is ascendant, it is taken very seriously. Indeed, it is essentially unshakable, and cannot be overturned by contrary evidence or bad outcomes.
Let’s examine more closely the example of a community practicing human sacrifice to a rain god. Suppose that despite these sacrifices there is no rain for three years in a row, and the community suffers drought and starvation. If the belief in the god-sacrifice system were an explicit, debatable theory, people could turn away from it, saying, “Hmm. It doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe we should do less sacrificing.” But if the faith in the sacrifice system is a deep, unexamined cultural presumption, a bad outcome does not cause a turning away from the system. It might well provoke a redoubling of effort. People declare, “We have displeased the god by not offering enough sacrifices. Next year we’ve got to slay twice as many children!”
If a visitor from another civilization suggested that the locals weren’t behaving rationally, they would be offended by his criticism, for they are entirely wedded to their faith in the god as the maker of rain. Even though they agree that the sacrifices often don’t bring the desired result, they would say, in a tone of frustrated impatience, “But what else is there?”
The same blind faith operates when things go well. People don’t feel they need any kind of scientific evidence to affirm the power of the rain god. After a year of good rains and a successful harvest, they turn to the visitor and say, “Your skepticism is quite unjustified. See, Tlaloc has taken care of us!” The modern faith in government parallels this ancient pattern more closely than we like to admit. When things go right, we attribute the positive result to government without making any kind of controlled study to demonstrate its effect. When government efforts fail, we redouble our entreaties to its powers.
If one were to summarize the cultural presumption that drives the growth of government it might be expressed thus: Government is society’s natural and proper problem-solving agency. For convenience, I call this the competent authority presumption.
As mentioned, this belief is not treated as a testable, debatable proposition. Political philosophers do not begin their expositions by raising the question, “Is government a rational, responsible and effective problem-solving agency?” Generations of kings, presidents, activists, and publics have simply assumed that it is.
The task of this book is to highlight the power of this cultural presumption by exploring the many logical gaps and fallacies that it produces. We see how scholars and commentators are drawn into elementary errors, the explanation for which is their unthinking attachment to the idea government is society’s natural problem-solving system. We also take a close look into what government really is, and how it operates. This exploration reveals that this institution has many shortcomings as a problem-solving agency, and is therefore an unsuitable manager in most of the areas we have entrusted to it.
Our focus in this book is on big government, that is, the idea that government should involve itself broadly in economic and social life. If government were limited to undertaking a specific mission, the problem of political malaise would not be so momentous. For example, assume that government’s job is to maintain order. There is no guarantee that it would do this peacekeeping job competently. Its police officers might shoot innocent people, for example, or they might take bribes, or fail to solve murders. Naturally, people would complain and criticize. But the failure, and the criticism, would be confined to this one realm.
The picture changes radically when government is in charge of everything. When this is the case, the expectations and the failures in every sphere come back to government, and to the people in charge of it. That is the present situation, as the result of centuries of trusting government to handle society’s problems. Today, government funds and supervises education, from day care to post-doctoral study. It regulates and funds medical care in thousands of ways, supervising all of the many different health professions and institutions, as well as drugs and medical implements. It attempts to take care of the needy, the young, the old, the deranged, and the disabled. It regulates labor relations, dictating wage levels, hiring and firing decisions, as well as practices on vacations, leaves and pensions. It regulates the production and sale of a vast range of products, from drugs and foods to cars, airplanes, ladders and toys. It funds and manages roads and bridges, airports and hospitals. It regulates services from plumbing to auto repair, from selling insurance to cutting hair. It attempts to manage monetary affairs, credit, banking, and the business cycle. It subsidizes art and music, zoos and space exploration. It involves itself in social relations, dictating how members of different social groups must be treated. And, of course, the paperwork needed to enforce all these involvements, from environmental requirements to tax codes, from niggling inspections to sprawling liability lawsuits, adds to the frustration.
With a government of such broad scope, it is understandable that there will be much dismay over repeated failure.
How Do We Fix it?
Before We Choose Tools, We Must First Decide What’s Wrong
In spite of all the criticism, government gets bigger, generation after generation. Perhaps cutbacks occur here and there, but a decade or two later, the government involvement has generally returned in even broader form. Many of those who eagerly recommended a government program discover, decades later, that the program has become dysfunctional or has evolved into a form they never intended—and no longer endorse. But it stays! The meandering glacier of government keeps spreading down the valley, engulfing both opponents and supporters of government programs, their arms flailing, all crying out, “This is not what we wanted.”
The main appeal of government programs does not lie in the realm of specific arguments for individual programs. For this reason, I avoid discussing specific failures of government programs, and I avoid answering “What else is there?”—even though I would love to do so. To start listing the pros and cons of specific programs takes attention away from the underlying cultural presumption that prompts us to turn to government in the first place.... to be continued... Buy your copy now, and continue the exploration! »»