Choose Your Metaphor
By Arnold Kling
I suspect that a lot of the intractability of the disputes between people holding divergent political opinions reflects differences in the metaphors that we implicitly hold about government. It would be interesting to try to make these metaphors more explicit. I invite non-libertarians to play along.
I am trying to come up with a list of metaphors for government. For example, the hard-core libertarian metaphor for government is “Mafia” or “gang of thugs” or “protection racket.” What this gets at is that people look to government for protection against organized violence, the threat of which comes from criminal organizations and governments.
The metaphor that folks like Patri Friedman and I use is “monopoly service provider.” What this gets at is that representative democracy is, in our view, a much less effective tool for accountability than is market competition.
A metaphor that emerges somewhere in the Progressive/New Deal era is “countervailing power.” The idea is that certain individuals and firms acquire power in the market, and “the people” balance that power with power exerted by government officials.
Another metaphor is the government as a civil engineer. Whereas a civil engineer designs road systems, the metaphorical civil engineer designs health insurance, housing finance systems, and so on.
I recommend The People’s Romance, by Daniel Klein. Yes, I’ve recommended it many times over the years. But it is worth going back to every now and then. One aspect of the paper is that it describes the government as a drummer. In a band, the drummer’s beat is the biinding force that holds the band together.
I also think that sometimes people treat government as a deity. We are supposed to place our faith in government, and even to worship public officials, in some sense.
Another metaphor for government is as a conscience. I think a lot people view acts of government as reflecting a higher morality than acts which take place in the market. It is as if our lower selves operate in the market, but allegedly our higher selves operate when we engage in politics.