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Government Ain't Us

The idea is prevalent that little or nothing beneficial happens for people generally unless it is done by government.  Things people do individually — for their own purposes, using their own gumption, own wits, and own resources, neither incited by nor directed by government — too often are not counted as things that "we" do.  The assumption seems to be that unless certain things are done by government, they aren’t done — even if they are done!

Consider this comment appearing originally on Brad DeLong’s blog.  (It’s an outstanding site, by the way.)  I first encountered this comment in this Business Week Online article by Michael Mandel:

I’m not an economist, but it seems to me that one problem with Mandel’s
argument is that we’re not investing in human capital. Government
spending on universities has been slashed, leading to huge increases in
tuition and much greater burdens on individuals and families. –Rebecca
Allen, commenting on delong.typepad.com

"We’re not investing in human capital" laments Ms. Allen — who then immediately says that tuition is rising and that "individuals and families" apparently are paying this higher tuition despite the fact that doing so is a great burden.  So, individuals and families are investing in human capital.  But in Ms. Allen’s view, we’re not investing.

Why not?

Why reserve the "we" for actions taken by government?  As a shorthand, it’s perfectly appropriate to say about ourselves as Americans that, for example, "we drive a lot" or "we like NFL football."  Not everyone drives, and some Americans can’t tell a football from a foosball.  Nevertheless, these statements make sense, we (!) know what they mean, and I dare say that they’re correct.

No one would reply "Oh no Boudreaux, you’re mistaken!" and then explain that, because most driving is done privately and because football fans buy their tickets to NFL games with their own resources, we don’t drive a lot or like NFL football.

So why say say that "we’re not investing in human capital" simply because (assuming that it’s true) "government spending on universities has been slashed"?

It’s just not true that government’r’us — or that us’r’government.


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