Antipolitical Cynics Refuted?

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by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

NY Times columnist David Brooks recently cited a number of positive trends in the US over the last two decades, such as the reduction in crime, two long economic booms, declining rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion, improvement in the material well-being of the poor, and cleaner air and water. He says that US trends in these areas compare quite favorably with those in Europe. He concludes:

“But the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that despite all the ugliness of our politics, this is a well-governed nation. The trends of the past two decades stand as howling refutation of those antipolitical cynics who have become more scathing about government even as the results of our policies have been impressive.”

These positive trends are certainly to be applauded. Furthermore, they ought to caution libertarians who always are inclined to contend that we are on the verge of going to hell in a hand basket. But are they really “a howling refutation” of those who are cynical about politics? Do they really show that this is a “well-governed nation”?

Imagine a time when medical knowledge is abysmally poor. In fact, all practitioners of the era are quacks, employing treatments more likely to harm than to heal their patients.

Despite this sorry state of affairs, we can also imagine that even among such charlatans, some are far worse than others. One doctor, perhaps the least incompetent of the bunch, compiles a number of statistics on patient survival rates, life expectancy, and so on. He discovers that his patients are near the top in all relevant categories. Therefore, he claims:

“The overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that that my patients are a well-doctored people. The trends of the past two decades stand as howling refutation of those anti-medical cynics who have become more scathing about doctors even as the results of my treatments have been impressive.”

His argument is, of course, nonsense. Far from being a good doctor, he is merely the least bad of a sorry crew. His patients would be better off without his treatment, although they would be even worse off if treated by other doctors.

None of the facts Brooks presents demonstrate that the US government is not analogous to our “least-bad doctor.” I will readily admit that I would rather live in the US than in North Korea or Cuba. And it is undeniable that many good things happen in America every day. But is it our benign governance that is responsible for most of them, or do they happen despite our government, arising from the areas of civil society our government has not yet obliterated? If the latter is true, then perhaps even less government would make things go even better.

I do not believe such questions can be decided based on “the lessons of history.” History always presents us with complex phenomena that do not unambiguously support any theoretical scheme. The very same event that, to a Marxist, is a proof of capitalist exploitation serves, for a libertarian, as an illustration of the wonders of the free market. The same historical facts that demonstrate the efficacy of tariffs to a protectionist show the foolishness of obstructing international commerce to a free trader.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that many of the positive trends Brooks cites are in areas where the US government has either reduced its level of intrusion, or typically has intruded less than the governments of most other nations.

Brooks himself attributes the improved statistics on child poverty to the welfare reform of the 1990s, which lessened the involvement of the government in child poverty. Similarly, the relatively robust economic growth over the last two decades followed a significant decrease in marginal tax rates; in other words, it came after the state stopped seizing a large chunk of the nation’s wealth. Here, I will admit that Brooks’s argument contains a kernel of truth: in the economic sphere, the US is better governed than most of Europe, but only in that our government does less in the area than most European governments.

Brooks says, “There are now fewer highway deaths in the U.S. than in 1970, even though the number of miles driven has shot up by 75 percent.” But is it really the government that is responsible for that, or is it mostly due to the improvements in product safety that naturally arise on the free market?

Environmental concerns are frequently cited by those advocating active government. It must be admitted that governmental regulation has played a part in the improvement in the quality of our air and water over the last several decades. But to pat the government on the back for this ignores the fact that the state first intervened to permit the pollution that it is now regulating.

For instance, the British economist A.C. Pigou declared that government regulation was necessary to prevent costs from being imposed on third parties. His first illustrative example asserted that, if not for regulation, sparks from the engines of trains might often burn down woods, not owned by the railroad, which bordered the tracks.

But Nobel-Prize-winner Ronald Coase has pointed out that the only reason railroads needed such regulation was that the government had previously granted them exemption from normal liability for the damage caused by their operation. Prior to the exemption, railroads would have been fully liable for any damage their activities caused to the property of others.

Brooks might respond that even the earlier laws holding the creators of a nuisance liable would not have existed without the state. To examine such a contention in any depth is too large a project for a short column. In brief, however, I will note that there are many historical examples of law existing independent of anything resembling a modern state. A bald assertion that law presupposes the state does not pass muster.

In considering the medical example I used at the beginning of this column, you may have wondered, “How in the world could a profession that made most of its customers worse off ever survive?” If it had true customers, free to patronize it or not, it is extremely unlikely that it would survive. Even the most primitive of witch doctors likely had a net positive effect on their patients, if only due to the patients’ own belief in the witch doctor’s powers.

But the subjects of modern states are not free to patronize them or not. States have monopolized the entire land surface of the earth. By the end of the 19th century, modern states had conquered the last remaining stateless areas in the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa and the American West. When some place in the world is “threatened” with statelessness, one or more interested states generally rushes in to ensure that some state controls the territory in question.

Although in many places a state’s subjects can vote to replace one set of people nominally running the state with another, they are never presented with the option of having no state. Only in rare cases have they even been allowed to peacefully create a new state from part of the territory of an existing one.

The “lessons” a person finds in history usually reflect the presuppositions he brings to the evidence. Brooks assumes that if good things are happening, the government must be responsible, so it is no surprise that he finds the US well governed. Those of us with different assumptions beg to differ.

December 1, 2003

Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com.

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