August 11, 2009--President Barack Obama swept to power last November on a wave of enthusiasm for his message of hope and change. That wave is now receding, as all waves do. Obama’s poll numbers have been slipping. Even at this early stage, only 200 days into his 4-year term, the President and his administration are losing support. The bailouts are not working. The recession drags on.
Wars are proving more difficult to end and detention centers more difficult to close down than previously hoped. And even with the Democratic Party controlling both Houses of Congress, health care reform is mired in controversy.
On these and many other issues, President Obama is sure to disappoint, just as Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, and just about every one of their predecessors eventually disappointed many of their supporters after getting into power. But you know what? It’s not entirely their fault.
When people have unrealistic expectations, disappointment is sure to be lurking just around the corner. Not only is it the case that we voters tend to want our leaders to be perfect, which would be reason enough to expect to be disappointed; most of us, left and right, also want them to do things they really shouldn’t be doing.
The proper purpose of government, in the simplest terms, is to keep the peace. Governments can perform this vital function with objective laws and law enforcement agencies to protect individuals from fraud, coercion, and the initiation of force; a system of courts to handle disputes; and some kind of armed forces to repel foreign invaders.
In order for governments to accomplish these tasks, we the people grant them a monopoly on the use of retaliatory force (with exceptions for immediate self-defense). The fact that the members of a government are entrusted with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force is precisely what makes them ill-suited to pursuing any other goals beyond keeping the peace. All attempts by governments to deviate from their proper purpose necessarily entail negative, unintended consequences.
Economic laws dictate that governments cannot provide goods and services as cheaply and efficiently as markets can.
We want governments to guarantee us access to health care, but when they interfere in the free market, either innovation is stifled, or shortages ensue, or prices skyrocket, or all of the above. We want them to prevent people from ingesting certain mind-altering substances, but the ensuing War on Drugs packs our prisons, eats away at city centers, and empowers gangsters and terrorists at home and abroad. We want governments to provide education for all, but the quality of that education then suffers, or teacher’s unions grab control of the agenda, or the teaching of critical thinking is replaced by the promotion of statist propaganda. We want them to take care of infrastructure, but we get crumbling roads at double the cost and irrigation schemes to help farmers grow rice in the desert.
And this is what happens when the politicians we elect actually try to give us what we ask for! Economic laws dictate that governments cannot provide goods and services as cheaply and efficiently as markets can, nor can they determine with any accuracy which goods and services to provide in what quantities.
Instead of giving us what we ask for, of course, politicians often do something else entirely—not that this produces better results. We want them to save us from the consequences of our own bad decisions, which would be harmful enough, but they end up using the power we give them to save foolhardy banks and clueless car companies instead. As Gerald Ford put it, “ A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have .”
Why do we even need leaders, anyway? Well, depending on what is meant by “leaders,” maybe we don’t. Independent men and women of character do not want to be led. They want to be free to contract with each other as equals, exchanging value for value. In a society of adults, governments are not our parents or our masters. Governments are not supposed to rule us, after all, but to serve us. That was the great American innovation: a limited government to provide the special service of keeping the peace, leaving individuals free to live their lives as they see fit.
We do need leaders in some sense, of course. We need businessmen and women to run their companies efficiently and responsibly. We need intellectuals and artists to help us better make sense of the world in all its complexity, and to help us lead fulfilling, meaningful lives. And we do need politicians, to steer the government apparatus that protects us from force, fraud, and coercion.
But it is not possible for governments to do everything for everybody. Those political leaders who actually try to deliver all the goodies people clamor for are doomed to fail. The information problems and disincentives to productiveness inherent in such massive interventions are simply insurmountable. The closest leaders can get in practice is to draft some people into doing things for others, whether they like it or not. The inevitable result is the kind of polarization we see today, the war of all against all, with each faction trying to grab hold of the reins of power for their own pet projects.
Good political leaders need to encourage people instead to rise up and take responsibility for their own lives. But good leaders will not be able to rise to positions of power unless enough of us demand good leaders. Many of us in the advanced nations of the world have unfortunately become codependent. We want leaders to do everything for us, and we get leaders who are either deluded enough to think they can deliver, or leaders who are cynical enough to use our weaknesses to amass power for themselves. We need to change the way we think about government—and ourselves—before any real change is going to happen.