So why do governments on the whole seem to be so stupid?
It’s not my intention to be inflammatory. But I’d be rather surprised to learn you hadn’t thought something similar at some point in time.
Granted, governments must grapple with a wide range of conflicts and dilemmas. There are all sorts of people to please—fat cat CEOs, foreign powers, central bank chairpersons, lobbyists, the party apparatus, and of course, the teeming masses. Even then, “the masses” isn’t some homogenous body. There are thousands of interest groups and organizations that emerge from the populace—not to mention every individual’s personal opinion and agenda. It’s a lot to think about.
But the jockeying for government attention by a wide variety of vested interest groups is only a feature of our current political paradigm. It likely won’t ever totally disappear, but as a defining, driving force in society, it will fade.
The perceived stupidity isn’t stupidity at all—it’s the mentality of the politician. They want power, then they want more power. We can’t really fault them. We need some sort of government. And government inevitably has power. So it attracts people for whom wielding power is attractive. These are politicians. While we all want power over our own lives, it takes a special mentality to crave power over vast numbers of unknown others. As such, the pursuit of power is an important and necessary drive in society, like the drive to be an entrepreneur or an activist or an academic.
What emerges is the paradox of control.
Politicians think themselves in control of something wildly complex and beyond them, things like entire economies or the activities of other sovereign nations or the actions of their people.
As I’ve discussed in a previous blog and its sequel, two of the best ways government can intervene in the economy is to vocally support commerce and promote capitalism. It’s very simple, actually. Politicians are, out of necessity, good at giving speeches that’s all they must do to help set a social context in favor of commerce.
If only they could leave it at that!
I’m reminded of the case of Lavabit. Edward Snowden used Lavabit to send and receive encrypted emails to and from the United States. Power-centered bureaucrats and politicians got wind of this and, in the early days of the ongoing NSA scandal, subpoenaed Lavabit’s owner, Ladar Levison, for information on his clients.
In an admirable display of his principles, Levison refused to give up the information, preferring to shut the business down instead. It was, after all, his business’ raison d’etre to not give up personal information. He was even told that to speak about the experience with the press (and his lawyer!) would result in some unspecified, but sufficiently scary, consequences.
Lavabit filled a gap in the marketplace. It’s not illegal for people to want their information kept private, and some people do. So it’s not as if the government was cracking down on prostitution rings or drug cartels.
Government coercion, born of fear and the misguided notion that their actions could stop up a hole in the marketplace inadvertently created a destructive ripple effect. Commerce was discouraged. Someone will fill the gap, probably from outside the U.S., depriving that country from a small but significant industry. Last I heard, New Zealand’s Kim Dotcom was planning on offering a similar service.
It’s pretty easy to screw up the economy when deliberate action is taken. Increasing taxes to the wealthy results in tax havens cropping up, brain drains, decreased investment and more corruption as rich people turn to paying bureaucrats off to achieve their aims. Banning certain products or services results in black markets or offshoring. Bailouts mean more money printed, leading to inflation, and more debt. All sorts of unintended things occur. I’m reminded of the two most beneficial economic policies to emerge from the U.S. government—the G.I. Bill and the freeway system. Neither was intended as an economic intervention. Both were a boon to the U.S.
I guess the lesson is: don’t think the government is going to save you. They’re more about power than they are about your prosperity. Yet, everyone seems to have their eyes turned toward statehouses and administrative buildings, just waiting for someone to emerge—like Willy Wonka from his factory—with a sugarcoated solution and a big, silly smile. What’s government going to do? Say: “We don’t know what to do…” That’d go over well come the next election. Maybe, as has been said dozens of times in this blog, we’ve got a responsibility. At the moment, I would say that responsibility is to quit expecting so much from government. Start expecting more from yourself.