Should Libertarians Learn to “Love Government”?

Libertarian policy analysts William Eggers and John O’Leary recently published a provocative article entitled ““Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn’t Hate Government.” The article generated good responses by Bryan Caplan (here and here), and my fiancee. Tyler Cowen and Will Wilkinson have defended Eggers and O’Leary.

Eggers and O’Leary make some good points. On balance, however, I agree with most of what the critics say. As they point out, it is often unclear whether Eggers and O’Leary are saying that libertarians should learn to like government because that is the right view on the merits, or whether libertarians should merely pretend to like government for the sake of political strategy. If the latter, it is certainly true that a radical libertarian platform is unlikely to win elections — a point that few would deny. The same, of course, is true of a radical conservative or left-wing platform.

That does not mean, however, that libertarians can’t make gains by tapping into popular suspicion and distrust of government. In addition, as Bryan notes, there is a natural division of labor between moderate and radical libertarians, with the first group concentrating on incremental reforms of the existing system, and the second focusing on more comprehensive critiques of it.
If Eggers and O’Leary mean that loving government is actually the right position in itself, then I think they conflate intelligent and sophisticated analysis of government with affection for it.

Here are my comments on Eggers and O’Leary’s five specific points:

#1: Bad government leads to bigger, badder government….

[I]n societies where people distrust large institutions–whether government or big business–the demand for more regulation and for more government is higher, even when government is incompetent or downright corrupt.

This is true in some cases, but far from universally so. Distrust and dissatisfaction with government was an important cause of most of the major free market reforms achieved in democratic societies over the last several decades. Think of the US in the 1980s and 90s, Thatcher in Britain, the free market reforms in Ireland and New Zealand, and so on. In every case (with the possible exception of Ireland), the leaders who promoted these reforms made a point of tapping into popular frustration with and distrust of government. This is even more true of successful free market reforms in post-communist societies such as Poland, Estonia, and the Czech Republic.

Eggers and O’Leary are, of course, correct in suggesting that distrust in government doesn’t necessarily lead to support for reducing its size. It could lead to a belief that things will be better if only the right people are elected to office. This is the sort of conviction that libertarians have to work to dispel. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that people who distrust government and believe it performs poorly are more likely to support shrinking it than those who trust the state and believe it works well.

#2: To shrink government, you need to love government….

Until small-government types better master the nuts and bolts of the public sector–how to design policies that work in the real world and how to execute on large public undertakings–their initiatives to downsize government will continue to disappoint.

This is mostly false. It’s true that downsizing government sometimes requires “master[ing] the nuts and bolts of the public sector.” But such mastery doesn’t require you to “love government.” You can study something closely even if you view it with suspicion and distrust. People can study dictatorship, crime, and racism without loving dictators, criminals, and racists. The same is true of “the nuts and bolts of the public sector.” Moreover, Eggers and O’Leary write as if libertarians have largely ignored the workings of the public sector. In reality, libertarian scholars have produced a vast literature on this subject. For example, libertarian economists William Niskanen and Gordon Tullock are two of the founders of modern economic analysis of government bureaucracy. There is a also a large libertarian literature on the details of environmental policy (co-blogger Jonathan Adler is an important contributor), privatization strategy, land use regulation and many other related topics. This literature surely has its flaws. But it’s wrong to assume that libertarians have mostly ignored the workings of the public sector.

#3: Market-based reforms are not self-executing….

Without a keen appreciation of the process by which legislation and programs are designed and implemented, efforts to move from monopoly to markets carry a high risk of failure.

As Bryan points out, this is true for some market-based reforms but not for others. Privatization of state-owned enterprises and partial deregulation require careful planning lest disaster ensue. Many harmful government interventions, however, can be simply abolished. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and the abolition of price controls in the 1970s and 80s were great success stories of this type.

Moreover, “keen appreciation” of the details of reform strategies doesn’t require you to “love government” or even not hate it. And as with point #2, libertarian scholars have in fact produced a vast literature on strategies for privatization and deregulation. They certainly haven’t ignored these issues. Robert Poole is a leading contributor to that literature, which he summarizes here.

#4: Government bashing alienates those you want to reach….

Incessant government-bashing may make you feel good, but alienates most everybody who knows and loves a police officer, firefighter, teacher, social worker, anyone who has ever collected an unemployment check, and anyone who saw NASA put a man on the moon.

There is some truth to this, but it is overstated. First, “bashing government” doesn’t require trashing all the people who work there. The point of libertarian government-bashing is not that government employees are unusually bad people, but that they operate in institutions with poor incentives. The Postal Service and public schools can be dysfunctional even if your daughter’s teacher and your mailman are wonderful people. Liberals, for their part, routinely attack corporations without anyone assuming that they are thereby “bashing” all the millions of people who work for them.

Second, we should not underrate the massive distrust of government that exists in society today, and the growing belief that its scope should be reduced. Most of the people who feel this way are not consistent libertarians. But they may be willing to support substantial reductions in government relative to its current size.

Finally, some categories of government employees really are widely hated by the public, especially politicians. I think that the public overrates the extent to which politicians are bad people and underrates the ways in which they simply have bad incentives. Nonetheless, the political process does favor of the election of ruthless power-seekers, and libertarians should do all they can to point this out. On this point, public opinion may be more receptive to libertarian insights than on most others.

#5: Nobody will care what you know until they know you care…

Many voters today may indeed want smaller government, but what they want most of all is competent government. In addition to pointing out the flaws of government, free-marketers also need to communicate a genuine interest in the effective performance of the important duties of government.

I don’t think these two objectives are mutually exclusive. All but anarchist libertarians would concede that there are “important duties of government” that should be performed as well as possible. However, we must make the case that smaller government is also likely to be more competent government. I don’t think libertarians need to love government in order to do that. The right strategy for libertarians is to persuade people that you can “care” without supporting big government, indeed that the objectives of caring people are often best accomplished by shrinking the state. I doubt that we can achieve that goal by learning to love government or by pretending to do so. Indeed, if people come to think that government is so wonderful that even libertarians love it, why would they want to reduce its power?

There is also an issue of comparative advantage here. Lots of people of varied political persuasions focus on improving government performance. The special insight of libertarians is pointing out those areas where we should eliminate or at least greatly reduce government intervention.

UPDATE: I should mention that I don’t think that Eggers and O’Leary are simply unaware of the libertarian literature on privatization, bureaucracy, and other “nuts and bolts” of government. Eggers is himself a privatization scholar. But it does seem that they failed to consider its relevance in this particular article.

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