The Myth of Government Services
When people talk about government “services,” what leads us to believe that the general public wants these services? When the bill comes due for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the drug war, public art, military weapons, police, firefighters, elementary schools, and on and on and on, how can we know whether citizens want these things? Taken further, how can we know citizens not only want them, but also at the price they are paying for them?
Suppose you are walking down the street and pass by an alley. Something catches your attention and you peer into the darkness. You find a man with a gun to his back. The man holding the gun is tearing into the other man’s pockets. At this point, you’ve made an obvious assumption – one man is being robbed by another man. You yell at the gentleman holding the gun, “Get out of here! Quit mugging that man!” The man with the gun responds, “Why do you assume I’m robbing him? He’s letting me borrow money.” Do you believe this? What gives you the impression that he is indeed robbing the man and not just borrowing money from him?
If you were to see a woman with a knife to her throat with a man forcing himself on her, why would you assume it is rape and not love-making? How can we tell the difference?
The assumptions we made above about the man being mugged and the woman being raped were indeed correct. What gave it away? Well, in the first instance it was the gun in the back. In the second it was the overpowering with a knife to the throat. We made correct assumptions because we recognized the aggressive force taking place and identified victims in both scenarios.
When aggressive force is used against someone, they are by definition worse off. If they were not made worse off, you would not have had to use violence against them. A “trade” involving a gun to the back is no trade at all. Sex with a knife to the throat is not sex; it’s rape.
Again I have to wonder, what makes us believe that citizens want the trillions of dollars in government “services” they are forced to consume each year? How can we know that citizens are made better off by these services? I cannot deny that citizens want roads, education services, retirement plans, health care and the like, but it does not follow that demand for these services means a demand for forced consumption of these services at non-negotiable prices. Precisely because we genuinely want things like roads, health care, and education, what does it say about the government’s ability to provide these goods and services that they must use the threat of prison in order to complete the “sale?”
For example, I want a retirement plan, but if it were my choice would I choose to “invest” in social security? You may want an education for your child, but if left up to you, would you purchase the education services of your local school district? Sure, many of us love eating hamburgers, but should government produce hamburgers and force us to pay for them?
Here is the reality: when government provides goods and services, we get them whether we like it or not, whether we use them or not, and regardless of any other options that may exist. We cannot control how much is produced, the quality produced, nor the manner in which they are delivered. And forget about having an option to pass on the purchase.
If we must be forced under threat of jail and violence to pay for government services, why is it assumed that we are made better off? If we actually wanted these goods and services, would we have to be coerced into such a trade? Does the local grocery store force me into shopping there – whether I like it or not? Am I threatened with prison to trade with the movie theater across the street? Did Apple force me into buying my iPod? Imagine if Apple attempted to operate like government by giving consumers no ability to abstain from trading. Instead, they sent bills to millions of people who never ordered an iPod. Can you imagine the outcry from consumers? Yet the old couple down the street say nothing when they are forced to pay for a light-rail project they’ll never use.
If the government were truly interested in providing goods and services to the public at competitive prices, they would act like any other business. Indeed, they would be just another business. Instead of threatening their “customers” with prison in order to sell them a service, they’d offer a service at a price pleasing to the customer. We could then choose to buy or not. Either way, we would be showing our preference for that service and providing valuable feedback to the government in terms of supply and demand. “Buying” a service because you’d rather not go to jail is not showing a preference for the service at all. Rather, it’s displaying your preference for not being a prisoner.
As in the mugging and rape examples, we were able to recognize the victims as victims because they were being forced to do something against their will. This force was necessary because the victims were revealing to the aggressors that the interaction was making them worse off. If left alone, the victims would not have willingly agreed to participate in either of the interactions. Thus, the very fact that the government must threaten us with prison in order to “sell” us their services reveals that we would not make these trades if left up to us.
When I take action in my life – going somewhere, not going somewhere, doing something, not doing something, buying something, not buying something – I am attempting to improve my situation, otherwise, I would not have taken the action. My action is displaying a preference. When I am forced into changing my course of action from what I wanted to do, I am made worse off.
At this point, I know what you’re thinking. “But Justin, I do things that I don’t want to do ALL the time!” I know, and so do I. Do I want to clean the dishes every night? Do I want to come into work every single day? Do I want to shell out all the cash I do to buy gas for my car? No, but I do these things anyway because the alternative is worse. I’d rather do the dishes than be a jerk to my fiancée (and sleep on the couch). I’d rather come into work even when I don’t feel like it because unemployment is a worse alternative. No gas means no car, and I’d rather drive than use the alternative transportation options. This is fundamentally different than saying “I’d rather give up my money to the guy who mugged me because living is better than dying.” Revealing a preference because of aggressive force or violence is not the same as revealing a preference through a mutual, voluntary interaction. A preference that is revealed through aggressive force is at the very least distorted and at most completely manufactured. Either way, it cannot be considered a genuinely revealed preference.
Another objection might be that we popularly elect politicians who then choose what goods and services we must consume. If we don’t like it, we’ll elect new ones. But this objection fails when broken down to what it really implies: rule by the whims of the majority. If majority rule is how people prefer to buy goods and services, why not take a poll every time you go to the grocery store or shoe shopping? Whichever pair of shoes gets 51% of the votes you will be forced to buy at a price you have no say in. Worse still, you must wait four years before the majority picks another pair of shoes for you. How about letting the majority rule on which career path you take? Take a poll before going into college and whatever the majority says, you must do. Didn’t want to be a biology major? Too bad. Didn’t want to go into the PhD program? Oh well, 51% said so. We inherently recognize the absurdity of majority rule when it comes to many of our personal decisions. If 51% is a terrible way to make personal choices as mundane as what pair of shoes to buy, why overlook its consequences when it comes to the really big stuff? Why accept it when it comes to our health care? Or our children’s education?
In short, there is no reason to believe people want government goods or services, at least in the capacity they are delivered today. How do we know this? For the same reason we know a woman with a knife to her throat didn’t want to have sex. The fact that these “services” must be forced onto the people through taxation and the threat of prison is proof that if let alone, we would not choose to consume them. Yes, we want many of the goods and services that government forces on us, but that does not mean we want them provided by the government, who offers us no control over the quantity, quality, or distribution of them. We are necessarily made worse off every time we are threatened to do something against our will. Government is the personification of this. It is the ultimate “offer you can’t refuse.” The quintessential “your money or your life” scenario.
Quite simply, it’s the difference between rape and love-making.