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Freeman Essay #37: “Government Is No God”

The topic of this June 1999 Freeman essay is the unwarranted trust that far too many people put in government officials.  The essay is available at the link below.

Assume you need surgery to remove a brain tumor. Two physicians in your town offer to perform this operation. Dr. Smith specializes in neurosurgery; it’s his sole occupation. Dr. Jones, however, divides his time among a variety of occupations. Along with performing neurosurgery, he practices dentistry, gynecology, podiatry, and radiology. He also spends part of each day teaching political science at the local college, and another part of each day as an investment counselor.

Which surgeon will you use?

If your brain tumor hasn’t yet seriously diminished your capacity for rational thought, you’ll choose Dr. Smith—the specialist. Dr. Jones might well be more brilliant than Dr. Smith, but common sense correctly tells you that even the world’s smartest person can never master a complex task if that person spreads himself too thin. Mastery requires specialization.

In our everyday lives, we all grasp this fundamental truth about the importance of specialization. Each of us is trained—through schooling, experience, or both—to do a particular job. None of us grows his own food, weaves his own cloth, brews his own beer, mixes his own toothpaste, and works as a CPA or a pipefitter. In fact, none of us even thinks to try to do all these things. Nor do we purchase goods and services from non-specialists—with one big exception.

The exception is politics. Judging from any ordinary day in the life of the president of the United States, politicians fancy themselves to possess near-godlike capacities for mastering a vast array of issues and disciplines. It’s typical to hear Bill Clinton—in a single day!—speak with seeming authority on the merits of school uniforms, on plans for bringing peace to the Middle East and to Kosovo, on the consequences of higher tax rates, on the benefits of V-chips for televisions, and on how to reduce the number of illegitimate births among inner-city teenagers. No social issue seems beyond his grasp.

Perhaps more astonishing is that virtually no one looks askance at such absurd pretensions. While almost everyone would (properly) regard as crazy a physician who attempted to work also as an accountant, farmer, and political philosopher, most people don’t think twice about a politician who not only expresses opinions on countless complex subjects, but also meddles in each of these matters. Indeed, many people positively demand that politicians each have a hand in an oceanic array of human activities.

Why? Why are politicians—unlike people in other occupations—widely presumed to possess sufficient expertise in almost any subject that catches their fancy? Why don’t people howl with laughter, rather than nod their heads seriously, whenever Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or Trent Lott discourses on some matter about which he has neither experience nor expertise? Why do people swallow the ludicrous promises and proclamations of politicians—promises and proclamations that are typically sillier than the assertions of a third-rate fortuneteller with a traveling circus?

The answer to these questions, I fear, is that most people regard the state as a superhuman institution. Most people regard government (or, at least, democratic government) as somehow free of the limitations that beset human beings in nonpolitical activities. In short, too many people deify the state. But regardless of your political views, it is impossible seriously to deny that government is a human institution. Just as General Motors, Sun Microsystems, the Ford Foundation, the Kiwanis Club, mom-and-pop retailers, and every other profit and not-for-profit organization you care to name is run by human beings, so too is government. The state is no more capable of superhuman feats than is any other human institution.

Few people dispute this fact when it is stated so baldly. Nevertheless, people routinely act as though they do in fact believe government to be (at least semi-) godlike.

Why Is the State Deified?

The question then becomes: Why do people deify the state?

Part of the answer is that politicians shamelessly encourage this deification. They do so directly by promising to perform all sorts of impossible miracles—using prohibition to eliminate drug use, keeping Social Security solvent without imposing crushing taxes, using campaign-finance reform to exorcise interest-group demons. The fact that these schemes always fail seldom poses a problem, for politicians are unscrupulous and clever about blaming others for these failures.

Politicians’ direct efforts to encourage deification of the state would come to naught, however, without their myriad indirect efforts.

Probably the most effective of these indirect efforts is government-run schooling. By failing to educate American children, government schools each year spew out platoons of young people who are not taught to think critically and reason carefully. Instead, they learn only to parrot bumper-sticker slogans and to value the emotion du jour over evidence and rational analysis.

Yet another source of support for politicians seeking to deify the state is a popular press that reports on government actions and agencies as though their names accurately describe their actual effects. For example, Congress’s claim that the recent Small Business Jobs Protection Act will do just that goes largely unchallenged—despite the fact that it raises the minimum wage!

It’s no surprise, then, that Americans too seldom question the motives and the abilities of government officials who regularly claim to possess far wider expertise than could have been acquired in a lifetime by a legion of Leonardo da Vincis.

My objection can’t be parried by pointing out that the president gets advice from specialists of all kinds. How does he know whom to canvass for that advice? If he seeks advice on whom to seek advice from, the problem is merely pushed back a step.

It cannot be repeated too often: government is no god. Its employees are no more ethical or expert than employees in the private sector; nor are government employees—including the president and members of Congress—immune to the cognitive limitations that naturally afflict the rest of us.

I refer anyone who is tempted to fantasize that government possesses unlimited intelligence and abilities to these wise words from F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom:

[I]t is impossible for any man to survey more than a limited field, to be aware of the urgency of more than a limited number of needs. Whether his interests center round his own physical needs, or whether he takes a warm interest in the welfare of every human being he knows, the ends about which he can be concerned will always be only an infinitesimal fraction of the needs of all men.

Anyone seeking power who denies this truth is a devil, not a god.