By Bryan Caplan
Life is full of suffering. At least that’s what the Buddha tells us – and if you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person, you’ll find endless confirmation. In a statist society, our response often seems to be, “If there’s a problem, government needs to fix it.”
On reflection, though, that’s not how actual governments work. At all. Imagine writing a list of everything wrong with the world. There’s hunger. Broken hearts. Unemployment. Screaming at your kids after a bad day at work. Cheating on your girlfriend. Pollution. Heretics. Burning of heretics. Promiscuity on TV. Promiscuity in real life. Obese kids. Obese adults. People coughing without covering their mouths. The Islamist threat. Seniors eating dog food. The decline of marriage. Bosses who scream at their workers. Kids who don’t call on Mother’s Day. People who don’t read books. School bullying. Boring jobs. Boring teachers. Men dying years younger than women. People who don’t know how to start small businesses. You could go on and on. And on and on and on.
Go on, try it.
Now ask yourself, “How many of these problems does government even claim to try to alleviate?” No matter how statist your society is, there are probably ten problems the government ignores for every problem it tries to address.
A Panglossian economist would instantly invoke scarce resources and marginalism to explain these patterns. But if you put such preconceptions aside, this story isn’t very plausible. Consider this thought experiment.
1. List as many societal problems as you can think of.
2. Forget everything you know about actual government activity.
3. Rate the problems on your list by (a) severity, and (b) responsiveness to government action.
4. Remember everything you know about actual government activity and see how closely it matches your ratings on (3).
I say you’ll find a massive mismatch. For example, we spend trillions fighting terrorism, but mere billions reducing traffic fatalities. And the reason isn’t that terrorism readily responds to money, while traffic fatalities don’t. We spend 10% of our budget helping relatively poor Americans, but use the Coast Guard to prevent Haitians from sailing here to shine shoes to save their starving kids. Again, the reason isn’t that cash is a panacea for relative American poverty, or that Haitian immigration doesn’t put food on Haitian kids’ tables. Once you make a token effort to suppress your Just World bias, actually existing government intervention looks incredibly arbitrary.
Why then do people support the interventions they do, while apathetically ignoring countless other forms of human suffering and degradation? For the most part, people support the interventions they have because they have them. It’s not about the severity or treatability of the problems. It’s about conforming to our secular religion. Our society says that poverty among American seniors would be a terrible problem. So we have massive social programs to prevent it. How do we know this “disaster” is especially pressing in a world so full of suffering? We don’t. We don’t even try to do a fair accounting. Instead, we make stuff up, and shame anyone who subsequently furrows his brow. Simple as that.