The totalitarian temptation
By Scott Sumner
Opponents of libertarianism often point out that there are cases where government mandates can be welfare improving. I accept that argument, but not the implications that people draw from that fact.
The real question is not whether government power can make things better; it is whether government power will make things better, on average. I believe the answer is no.
I recently saw an article on mask regulations that made me almost burst out laughing:
After previously prohibiting local jurisdictions from imposing mask mandates, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, issued an executive order Thursday requiring residents to wear masks in public spaces, except in counties with 20 or fewer cases of coronavirus. Cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been rising for weeks in the state.
Notice the governor’s supreme confidence in his wisdom. A week ago he was so confident that mask mandates were a bad idea that he banned local governments—which presumably know their situation better than someone in faraway Austin—from mandating the wearing of masks. He didn’t recommend against local mask mandates, he banned them. Today this same individual is so confident that mandates are a good idea that he is requiring many local governments to ban masks. He’s not recommending they do so, he’s requiring mask bans.
This is not about whether mask wearing is a good idea (I favor mask wearing and private sector mandates but oppose government mandates), this is about whether we can trust government officials to recognize that they don’t have all the answers, and that sometimes they should allow others to decide for themselves. As soon as one gives power to government officials they will abuse that power, they will assume they know what’s best for us.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams tweeted on Feb. 29: “Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS!” He has since apologized and now supports wearing them.
White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said this month that he initially dismissed masks because medical workers were facing a shortage in supplies. He, too, is now an advocate.
I can’t overstate the damage done by these lies. It would be one thing if the authorities had said, “masks are effective, but we have a shortage so don’t wear them.” Even that would be slightly misleading, as the shortage was created by the government. Instead they lied and said masks are not effective, as a way to discourage their use. These government officials assumed that the public could not be trusted with true information.
In the future, public health officials might recommend that children be vaccinated for the measles, and people will recall when they were lied to about the efficacy of masks.
Over time, government mandates become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The government has so many mandates that the public begins to assume that if something is not banned it must be safe. They might assume that if masks are not required then they must be unneeded. It then becomes more difficult to get voluntary compliance.
We’ve seen this in banking, where people stopped paying attention to the safety and soundness of banks after FDIC was instituted. Before deposit insurance was mandated, people were very reluctant to deposit money in banks that were making lots of risky loans. Now they don’t care. If the public is treated like little children, they begin to behave like children. Government power advocates then say, “see, the public is infantile and they must be told what to do.”