What Does It Mean To Say That Government Should Provide A Good?

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One distinctiveness in many left-wing progressives is a common habit to make the claim that governments should provide this or that good while romanticising the process by which the democratic state functions to a point of smooth sailing. But what does it mean exactly to say that government should do or provide X efficiently?

First, X has to be on the agenda in the mainstream news because politicians want votes and they care about tackling issues in the mainstream. Out of all the different dozen issues in mainstream political discourse: drug laws, housing issues, LGBT rights, the death penalty, tax rates, public transportation efficiency, free speech rights, immigration — how likely is it that you are able to promote the importance of X over Y and Z? How will you prevent X from being dwarfed out?

But before X has a chance of penetrating mainstream discourse, there has to be a free flow of information. In other words, you need an independent media landscape relatively free of state propaganda and concentrated wealthy corporate ownership. Otherwise, the “important issues” are merely an illusion, or in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s words: manufactured consent. The only societies that more or less fit into these criteria are the small minority at the top of the Press Freedom Index.

Suppose that there is a generally free flow of information. Then, voters have to care about politics. In reality, this is hardly the case. Most voters are utterly disinterested to the political process not because they’re unintelligent, but because playing video games and having sex and catching the latest Star Wars flick is far more gratifying than poring through hundred-page policy reviews and reports from your favourite think tanks after knocking off from an 8-hour work shift. Incentives matter.

Assume that citizens in general do care. Voters then have to be sufficiently educated and informed to know how to vote. Yet this decision is enormously difficult. Not everybody majored in political science and economics. Even if they did, voters do not choose between single policies, but between bundles of policies. Should I pick A, B and C over X, Y and Z? Should I pick a party that promises more environmental protection over a higher minimum wage? What about choosing between ramping up national defence and tighter immigration control? Or reducing the debt or a larger budget on education?

How does the average voter calculate these trade-offs? How does he weigh these costs and benefits against one another? This isn’t microeconomics 101 on a chalkboard in a classroom where gaining one unit of A is easily comparable to losing one unit of B. There is no such common metric standard that voters can make use of, making these decisions significantly more complex, if not impossible. The result: voters make use of unreliable heuristics to decide (political rhetoric, politician’s charisma, values, ideology).

Now assume again that a large majority of the voting electorate is relatively well-informed i.e., they study political economy and possess the technical know-how. Instead of watching Game of Thrones every Sunday, they diligently pore through policy reports and have a good grasp on which political party will bring about the best overall aggregate benefits after accounting for the costs.

But then how confident are we that voters can assess politicians well? The knowledge required to perform this task is not picked up in a textbook, but by careful examining of the politician’s past careers and track record, along with a whole lot of guesswork. How exactly can we compare the competence of a multi-millionaire tycoon owner of an oil business against a chief of military to run a country? What variables will we use? Personal wealth? Business revenue? A scandal-free record? The variables are endless, not to mention unreliable.

How assured are we that the millions of voters will and can practice wise judgement in picking politicians — how far are we willing to trust the “wisdom of the crowds”? Political populism in the U.S., Hungary, Philippines, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic etc has exposed the charming naivete of an answer in the affirmative.

Even if citizens of said country are not easily led on by populist claims of “free goods” and “immigrants steal our jobs”, these judgements are merely predictions in the wind. Even politicians with the most promising track records have defaulted on their campaign policies. There’s a stark difference between what politicians claim they’ll do and whether they actually do it. Nobody can know with certitude what a politician will actually do once they are in office. The long, winding history of false and unfulfilled campaign promises affirms this.

But assume for the umpteenth time that they’re just as omnibenevolent and principled as the second coming of our saviour Lord Jesus Christ and we know in our gut that they will keep all their campaign promises. Then you need them to be intellectually competent and possess sufficient political clout to maneuver politics. But politicians are humans, and humans err. Maybe they get sidelined or expelled by their own party for being too uncompromising, maybe they get captured by wealthy interest groups, maybe they turn out to be corrupt, incompetent or both.

So, we vote them out at the next election cycle — a grand total of 4–5 years later — while the economically poorest in society continue to be deprived of the same level of prosperity that the middle and upper classes enjoy.

While the free market is by no means perfect, the biggest advantage of allocating goods through markets is the fact that the most ignorant voter is not intellectually handicapped the same way they are in the democratic process. Firms in a market do not possess exclusive authority over the production of goods the same way governments do. Multiple healthcare or housing companies can exist simultaneously. With markets, there is an easy method to compare and contrast — you either buy something because you value it or you don’t. Arguably the most important point here is that one cannot evaluate alternatives in government since no two policies can be enacted at the same time.

Oftentimes, progressives forget that saying “the state should provide something” is the equivalent of arguing for the allocation of goods through this arduous democratic process. It will do good for them to remember this.

Classical liberal. I love the Wu-Tang Clan, Spaghetti Westerns and anything Aly & Fila.

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