Human history is characterized by a persistent determination to address inequitable allocations of resources. This alleged misallocation has gone by various names and has been attributed to assorted underlying causes—including what we might have called “privilege” before our contemporary warping of that term, myriad manifestations of market failure, and various forms of rent extraction. The history of Western civilization offers many examples of societies structured in ways antithetical to merit and to most contemporary notions of fairness. Over time, though, these societies have moved fitfully toward more egalitarian models.
This history provides important context in understanding our currently malfunctioning body politic. As civilizations grow more complex, their governing bodies necessarily seek the consent of the governed—either tacitly or by direct democratic assent—through the provision of public goods and by implementing policies designed to improve living conditions. Economists define public goods as those that all members of a society may enjoy in common, with no individual’s consumption of it detracting from any other’s ability to do the same. As public goods are non-exclusive, they often fall prey to market failures, as private actors cannot capture sufficient value from them to make investment in them worthwhile, notwithstanding the collective benefit they may provide.
Advances such as the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, along with the development of legal concepts such as equal protection under the law, cemented the notion of government as the primary vehicle—whether in a positive (through policies) or negative (through laws) capacity—for overcoming vestigial societal inequities inherited from a less enlightened era and for addressing market failures associated with mercantilism and the operation of primitive free-market systems. The centralization of resources to these ends accelerated in the twentieth century: while at the end of the nineteenth century, European countries spent less than 10 percent of GDP via their governments, in the early twenty-first century this figure now exceeds 50 percent in many European jurisdictions and is approaching that level in the United States.
The government’s central role in eroding concentrations of unearned wealth and power, combined with a rising standard of living for those in market democracies, animated the idea, which endures to this day, that government action and the extension of governmental remit into all spheres of human activity are necessary to solving society’s ills. Unfortunately, rather than accepting its gold watch and our thanks for a job well done, the public sector’s inexorable growth as the answer to all problems continues.
Looking to government as the only solution—as was perhaps appropriate in the pre-industrial era—ignores that today we in the U.S., at least, are two-plus generations into a functional meritocracy, which has largely erased structural impediments to individual advancement (if it has not eradicated all unearned privilege). Moreover, modern government has attained such a scope in the industrialized democracies that not only are substantially all legitimate public goods already being provided, but the government itself is now far more likely to be the cause of, or at least a significant contributor to, any given issue, rather than an instrument for its solution.
Yet the notion persists that government, not the other actors within civil society, should take the lead in addressing these problems. While this is an understandable reflex, it must be unlearned. In considering the challenges within contemporary American society, ask yourself: Are government policies the proximate or ultimate cause of the issue? And do many (if not most) calls to action in response present solutions involving a larger government role?
Consider student loans. The federal government took over the market for student debt and now proposes widespread debt forgiveness of non-economic loans, many of which cannot be serviced. Or consider the war in Ukraine: the U.S. and the West promote nonsensical energy policies as part of a mythical “energy transition,” thereby empowering rogue nations such as Russia that continue to exploit hydrocarbons and wield energy independence as a weapon, necessitating robust Western financial and military aid in defense of Ukraine. Inflation? Having caused prices to explode through an imprudent monetary and fiscal blowout, Washington passes an inaptly named Inflation Reduction Act, which has little to do with reducing inflation but contains unproductive spending. These are just three examples of government’s creating or contributing to a problem and then posing solutions that make it even worse.
It was not so long ago that American politicians spoke of “reinventing government” in recognition that government was no longer working in the public interest as well as it once had. And partisans across the political spectrum might readily agree that whatever the government chooses to involve itself with, it can do so better and more efficiently. But the underlying problem may have less to do with whether government is cost-effective or pursues optimal policies. Rather, it is that government is asked to do too much and is seen as the only mechanism for combating any number of problems. That the government itself creates many (if not most) of these problems would suggest that we must revive the elements of civil society—civic organizations, nonprofits, voluntary associations, the private sector, and individual initiative—as healthier and more effective alternatives to a government large enough to do considerable harm, yet intrinsically incapable of addressing problems of its own making.
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