It's Still OK to Hate the Government

William D. Eggers and John O’Leary have an article in Reason to support the release of their book, If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government. The premise of the article is clear from its title: “Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn’t Hate Government.” The article has attracted a lot of positive attention in the libertarian corners of the internet in which I lurk, but I think this positive sentiment is unwarranted. Most of the arguments presented in the Reason piece are overstated or unsound.

To justify and introduce their position, Eggers and O’Leary appeal to the Founding Fathers:

Our Founding Fathers, fondly quoted by limited-government advocates, didn’t view government as evil, but as a flawed institution with some important jobs to do. They studied how government worked and they served in office, not because they viewed government with disdain, but because they knew the importance of good government.

All of this is true. While the Founding Fathers eloquently express many libertarian sentiments, it is nevertheless puzzling to me why they should be so fondly quoted, at least by libertarians. The project of the Founding Fathers was this: to constrain the state by writing down rules for its constraint. I think that any candid assessment of the results, at least from a libertarian perspective, would conclude that the project was an abject failure. Today, policy in the US is decided by some combination of majority rule and special interests with little regard to any written rules of constraint. When a Constitutional provision begins to cause problems, it is generally reinterpreted to support the proposed intervention. Libertarians should not seek to naïvely imitate the Founders unless they wish to experience a failure similar to theirs.

The authors list five specific reasons why libertarians should not hate government. The first reason, based on a single NBER working paper, is that “the worse government performs, the more citizens demand greater government intervention.” This is a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation of the paper, which develops a mathematical model in which investments in social capital lead to lower regulation, and vice versa. The model produces two equilibria: one in which investments in social capital are low and regulation is high, and another in which investments in social capital are high and regulation is low. The study authors explicitly state that “[c]ulture shapes institutions, and institutions shape culture. The causality runs in both directions.” Furthermore, they admit that omitted variable bias makes it very difficult to empirically untangle the relative magnitudes of causal influence: “Unfortunately, it is very difficult to test this prediction of the model using instrumental variables, since many exogenous factors that influence trust might also directly influence regulation, and vice versa.” Their argument for causation running from distrust to regulation is especially flimsy: all evidence presented to support this claim is based on simple regressions with no discernible identification strategy. In other words, they show that causation in this direction is at best plausible, and by no means necessarily true. Furthermore, the data for the relevant portion of the paper is cross-sectional; it simply does not test the hypothesis that if people in one country begin to distrust government more, they will demand more regulation.

Second, Eggers and O’Leary argue that “[t]o shrink government, you need to love government.”

Until small-government types better master the nuts and bolts of the public sector—how to design policies that work in the real world and how to execute on large public undertakings—their initiatives to downsize government will continue to disappoint.

There are a number of possible responses to this. First, it does not follow that to know the intricacies of government, you must love it. Second, there is certainly no need for all libertarians to master the nuts and bolts of the public sector. Specialization. Third, the fact that one needs to “know which bureaucratic levels to pull” is in fact one of the problems with government and a further reason for hating it.

The third reason cited by the authors is that “[m]arket-based reforms are not self-executing.” They cite the botched deregulation of electricity markets in California to support this claim. There is a bit of irony in Eggers and O’Leary counseling moderation and citing an example in which the principal problem was insufficient radicalism. Putting this irony aside, it is instructive to consider what proportion of the libertarian agenda relies on careful execution of a complex transitional mechanism and what proportion really is self-executing. A partial list of policies on the self-executing side of the continuum includes privatization of education, legalization of drugs, legalization of organ sales, abolition of occupational licensing, privatization of marriage, elimination of trade barriers, and elimination of immigration restrictions. Of greater complexity we might cite liberalization of financial regulations. While it is useful to have a few libertarian policy wonks, it seems to me that the majority of truly market-based reforms are at least somewhat self-executing. The remaining reforms hardly constitute a reason for fostering a love of government.

Fourth, the authors argue that government-bashing alienates ordinary people.

According to many libertarians, politicians are corrupt, bureaucrats are lazy, and public unions are a collection of thugs…

Incessant government-bashing may make you feel good, but alienates most everybody who knows and loves a police officer, firefighter, teacher, social worker, anyone who has ever collected an unemployment check, and anyone who saw NASA put a man on the moon.

I agree that libertarians should not bash politicians, bureaucrats, or unions. Their corruption, laziness, and thuggery, to whatever extent it exists, is not the result of markedly lower character than the rest of us, but of the institutional environment in which they find themselves. But how is it then alienating to deplore that institutional environment?

Lastly, the authors quaintly argue that “[n]obody will care what you know until they know you care.” But libertarian policy proposal are often cited as evidence that libertarians do not care. “Many voters today may indeed want smaller government, but what they want most of all is competent government.” I don’t think this is true. First, as Bryan Caplan argues, voters are interested in indulging their irrational beliefs. Second, as Robin Hanson argues, voters are interested in participating in status competition.

The ultimate goal is the pursuit of happiness, and when a properly limited government does its job well, it fosters freedom, peace, and prosperity. That is a noble goal. Why not embrace it?

I agree that enabling people to flourish is a noble goal, and I do embrace it. I am merely skeptical that government can be properly limited and that improperly limited government contributes much, on net, to human flourishing. This may sound pessimistic or cynical to some, and in some ways it is, but I find great comfort in knowing that I needn’t bother waiting on government to get better in order to pursue happiness.

None of the above is to suggest that libertarians must hate government. Certainly, libertarians should feel free to love government if they wish to do so, and there may be good reasons not to get emotionally involved in the first place. But to my libertarian friends who do hate government, it’s OK; do not be ashamed.

7 replies to “It's Still OK to Hate the Government

  1. Adam

    I of course agree with most of what you say here, except in characterizing the actions of the Founding Fathers as attempting to constrain the state by writing down rules, or calling them an abject failure.

    I don’t think that the Constitution was simply an attempt to chain the state with the written word; I think it was written as a contract between the many states that considered themselves sovereign in their own right, as to the terms they were willing to give up some sovereignty to a government that would preside over all of them. A lot of the things that it gets made fun of for–like the 3/5 clause–are misunderstood because they’re viewed from the perspective of universal rights, when in fact they were simply comprimises between the interests of the different states involved.

    Moreover, I don’t think it’s really fair to call what they did an “abject failure”. The question becomes: in comparison to what?

  2. Eli Post author

    Adam, I prefer my interpretation, but even on your own terms, viewing the Constitution as a contract between the states, I don’t see how it is possible to regard the Founding Fathers as successful if the contract is not today being enforced in the way it was written.

    In terms of comparison, pick your poison: comparison to what they expected to achieve, to the Articles of Confederation, or to simply not forming a political union in the first place.

  3. Adam

    Those are not the points of comparison that I’d pick. I’d pick other countries, particularly ones, like Columbia, that have attempted similar “constitution” strategies.

  4. Carl Oberg

    Thanks, Eli, for posting this. It definitely needs to be discussed.

    First, they shouldn’t have used words like “love”, “hate” etc. Would this conversation even be happening if they had used words like “understand”?

    Second, I appreciate your list of self-executing reforms and for the most part agree. But the current political climate plus the snowballed effect of 200+ years of a “failed” constitution render such radical, libertarian solutions dead on arrival.

    I’ll be first in line advocating for the abolition of all drug laws, but if forced to wager how drug freedom would come about, I would put my money on some sort of state-level regulatory solution like state-run alcohol stores. That just seems like the more likely (but not optimal) solution. It’s not that these solutions are not self-executing … it’s that the self-executing solution is not at all likely. As you say, it’s the institutional environment. Which I proudly hate.

    So doesn’t this all come down to whether or not you are willing to play in the hated institutional swamp governed by a failed, misinterpreted document? You, I surmise, are not. I, on the other hand, find comfort in standing athwart institutional inevitability.

  5. Eli Post author

    Adam, that’s not a reasonable comparison because Colombia does not have the same or even similar non-governmental institutions.

    But in any case, I think we can agree that written constitutions tend to be eroded over time for public choice reasons and that it is best not to naïvely downplay such concerns, which was the point I was trying to convey in the first place.

  6. Eli Post author

    Carl, thanks for your distillation of the issue. I agree that self-executing solutions that will never be tried are irrelevant. Nevertheless, I think most (not all) plausible libertarian reforms, even if botched, are likely to make people better off rather than worse off. For example, if states start to run marijuana stores, even if they do a bad job at it somehow, it would be better than prohibition. In this sense, most reforms are not at all like the attempted deregulation of energy markets in California.

    It is certainly better to have well-executed reforms than poorly-executed reforms, and I am glad there are libertarians, like you, who work within the system to make it better. But whether one is willing to play in the institutional swamp is, as you suggest, a matter of personal preference. The claim, made by Eggers and O’Leary, that those who do not wish to do so are “misguided”, or have a “blind spot,” is unsupported, and I think it is quite reasonable for those who wish to be reflexive government-bashers to pursue their happiness in that manner.

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