Why Government Should Not “Deliver”
To counter “disillusionment with the government,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D. Conn) expressed a widespread but invalid or seriously misleading idea: it is the idea that governments should “deliver” or, in other words, be efficient (“Americans Diverge on Perils and Lessons of the Jan. 6 Capital Attack,” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2021):
Listen, I do think people are actively considering giving up on democracy in this country. And that does explain part of the reason why people marched on us, why people tried to overthrow the government. We’ve got to show people that government can deliver for them.
The idea that government should “deliver” is seriously misleading because it depends on what exactly it delivers. The WSJ reports that Mr. Murphy was “arguing for passage of Mr. Biden’s stalled economic agenda.” For anybody who disagrees with this trillion-dollar agenda—and about half of American voters do—the government should not “deliver.” It is an invalid idea if one assumes that it is incorrect to tax all the people in a country or even just a selected group of scapegoats (like “the rich”) in order to finance the benefits that others want.
In other words, it is not because some group has some grievance that the government should deliver relief, for this usually means that some other group will be conscripted into providing it. To support my claim, I could invoke the radical theory of Anthony de Jasay, but I will instead refer to the much milder ideas of Friedrich Hayek, which are representative of what classical liberals have believed for at least two centuries and a half. In Rules and Order (1973), the first volume of his Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Hayek wrote:
Since [the representative assembly] possesses authority to arrange everything, it cannot refuse responsibility for anything. There will be no particular grievance which it will not be regarded as capable of removing; and since in every particular instance taken by itself it will generally be capable of remedying such a grievance, it will be assumed that it can remove all grievances at the same time. However, it is a fact that most of the grievances of particular individuals or groups can be removed only by measures which create new grievances elsewhere.
Incidentally, a new consolidated version of the three volumes is forthcoming at the University of Chicago Press, under the competent editorship of Jeremy Shearmur. I will soon review the “Rules and Order” part for Econlib.
Of course, there can be real grievances. In a classical-liberal or libertarian perspective, however, these would be grievances against discrimination by government, not requests for government discrimination, that is, for granting privileges to some at the detriment of somebody else.
Saying that to “deliver” anything somebody wants should not be the role of government amounts to saying that the government should not be “efficient” in implementing measures that undermine or threaten the general context of individual liberty that equally allow all individuals to each pursue his own goals. This is why our forebears put stringent limits on government “efficiency,” from countervailing powers inside the government to specific procedural rules that politicians and bureaucrats must follow, such as the Senate 60% majority, not to forget constitutions, bill of rights, or other such fundamental laws that are by design constraining and difficult to change.
(I put “efficient” and “efficiency” in quotes because the meaning of the concept refers to what satisfies individual preferences without making anybody worse off. This encapsulation of Pareto efficiency would require a discussion by itself, and Hayek would differ. Let’s keep this conversation for another time.)
The obstacles put up against government “efficiency” include privacy rules that are, or were, enacted against government agencies building, using, or sharing databases on citizens. It is dangerous that government actions be too well-coordinated, as Hayek again understood (quoting from Rules and Order):
It is important that the size of this ‘public sector’ be limited and the government do not so co-ordinate its various services that their effects on particular people become predictable. [Emphasis in original]
In this perspective, a government should not discriminate in favor or against identifiable individuals determined in advance—although a measure may differentially affect unknown individuals in future instances. For example, changing intellectual property law will affect people who decide to create such property in the future or who would then benefit from it, but should not benefit or harm any particular person on whom we can now put a name.
In brief, the government should not “deliver” just to deliver some goodies to some privileged group in society. There is nothing good in government delivering tyranny or measures that push people farther on what Hayek called the “road to serfdom.” The only thing that government should deliver are the (few) measures that (arguably) facilitate the common interest of individuals in the satisfaction of their several preferences.