Statism and Lazy Thinking

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It is a common
failing of many advocates of statism, frequently noted by libertarians,
that they cannot see past the immediate and obvious results of a
measure to less immediately obvious consequences. The great majority
of those who supported alcohol prohibition probably never thought
about the results of black markets, just as most modern supporters
of drug prohibition are oblivious to the effects of pushing narcotics
into the criminal sector. They think, "Great, we'll discourage
the use of these harmful substances," without thinking through
the unintended effects – gang violence, organized crime, tainted
products that kill their users. These results are not hard to foresee,
but most people don't think past step one.

Likewise, most
people who thought the modern welfare state was a good idea surely
didn't anticipate the social breakdown and dependency created by
the Great Society. They simply thought, "Great, poor people
will have more money that they need" and thought no further
than that. Again, the destructive effects were not unforeseeable,
but for those who never thought past the first step it must have
come as a rude shock.

This is not
new; libertarians have been commenting on this intellectual failing
at least as far back as Frdric Bastiat. Less commented on by libertarians,
but in my opinion equally important, is the way in which many statists
fail to think past the first step when considering the results of
libertarian proposals. They assume that even with a major change
in government policy, everything else will remain static, with disastrous
results.

Consider the
example mentioned previously, drug laws. In my experience, many
prohibitionists, ignorant of the way that prohibition has affected
the drug market, are horrified by the idea of legalization because
they assume a situation that is otherwise completely static –
laws will change, but society will otherwise stay the same. Drug
users will still buy the same tainted products from the same violent,
unsavory characters.

Now, an examination
of another formerly illegal and potentially toxic product, alcohol,
makes the problems with this obvious. I don't buy pints of Guinness
on street corners from members of the Crips. The bottle of whiskey
I received for Christmas was not distilled in a filthy bathtub and
flavored with antifreeze. Shootouts between employees of Jim Beam
and Johnnie Walker are fairly rare nowadays.

Why? Because
dealers in legal products can have their contracts enforced without
shooting at each other, they can be sued if they poison customers
with tainted products, and they don't attract a disproportionate
number of violent and dangerous people to their industries. There's
nothing magical about narcotics that would make them different,
but many people assume that a legal drug industry would have all
the social pathologies of an illegal one, because they fail to think
past the obvious.

Education is
another good example. A depressingly common response to a proposal
to get the government out of education is to point out that there
is nowhere near enough capacity in the private school system, as
if no entrepreneur would think to try to fill this gap and satisfy
the demand. A slightly more sophisticated criticism is that private
schools are costly, or often don't accept students with poor grades
or behavioral records, or are usually affiliated with religious
groups that many parents are not members of.

Once again,
the lazy assumption that society and the economy would remain static
in the face of a fairly major change in government appears. If one
thinks things through, and considers the example of other areas
of the economy, it becomes obvious that a free market in education
would quickly result in entrepreneurs offering schools with a broad
array of different disciplinary environments, student bodies, religious/philosophical
orientations, and price levels, just as any other area of the economy
offers a wide array of products if allowed to.

This failure
to think past what seems like the obvious effects of a proposed
policy is endemic to many areas of politics. The typical responses
to many libertarian ideas, from cutting welfare ("The poor
will starve to death in the streets!") to ending occupational
licensure ("No one will know who's a competent doctor!")
are in large part manifestations of this mental laziness. The assumption
of a static society naturally encourages statism. If voluntary society
currently isn't doing something (for instance, certifying the safety
of products or businesses) because the government has crowded out
such efforts, anyone who doesn't bother to think past the immediate
and obvious will of course be horrified by the prospect of removing
the government from that area of society; in his mind, doing so
leaves us with nothing at all! Recognizing the ability of a free
society to carry out functions currently filled by government requires
an investment of mental effort that many people don't bother with.

Thus, while
a great deal of statism arises from collectivist or elitist philosophical
premises, a great deal is also the product of sheer sloth. This
is a depressing thought, in a way, but it is also a heartening one.
Convincing someone who is a committed philosophical collectivist
to value liberty is terribly difficult; guiding someone who hasn't
given the issues enough thought through a few extra mental steps
to see the power of free societies is child's play by comparison.
That doesn't mean it's easy, but it's possible.

December
30, 2006

John
Markley [send him mail]
is a freelance newspaper reporter from Illinois. He maintains a
blog at The Superfluous
Man
.

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