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:
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
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
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.
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:
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.