Government Paternalism in Action

by Russ Roberts on November 3, 2006

in Nanny State, Politics, Regulation

I was talking to some people last night about different approaches to government. A woman asked me if there was anything I thought government did better than the private sector. Sure, I replied. Killing people. That is the government’s best thing and governments have had unparalleled success in killing people over the last 100 years. Start with the murder of innocents. Hitler and Stalin dwarf the worst serial killer. Even if you count 9/11 as a private act of murder, that’s a few thousand versus many millions. No comparison.

Then there’s war. Government is very good at war relative to the private sector. Some wars are better than others. Some are ghastly. But there is no disputing that government armies, regardless of the merits of the cause, are better at killing people than private armies.

Come on, someone else said, before I could lengthen the list with maybe the enforcement of contracts and the rest of a very short list. What about education and health care? We can’t leave that to the private sector. That launched us into a long discussion of the current state of the public schools and whether the vigilance of the FDA in protecting us from dangerous drugs has been a net benefit or a net loss. Let’s turn the question around, I asked. Is there anything the government does well?

As an example of the dangers of using the government as an instrument for good, no matter how well-intentioned matters begin initially, I gave the example of the Tobacco Settlement. Cigarettes are nasty. Most people thought it was a good idea to take Big Tobacco to the cleaners and force them to pay for the health care costs of smokers. I thought it was a very bad idea for many reasons. But suppose you thought it was a good idea. How did it turn out in practice?

Very badly. Not like it was "supposed to." Basically, it enriched tobacco companies and trial lawyers out of the pockets of smokers who are relatively poor. What an repulsive thing it turned out to be, all done in the name of the children and health.  Read this careful account by Jeremy Bulow of how it actually played it.

I’d like to say that the Who were right: we won’t get fooled again. But we will until we remember that what we want government to do well and what it can do well are not the same thing.


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