Misrepresenting Resistance To Big Government

Aaron Carroll, one of the editors in chief of the liberal health policy blog, The Determined Statist (a.k.a. The Incidental Economist), recently boasted about co-authoring a paper about the “social contract” and health care reform in America (see here).

Carroll and his co-authors write that a misunderstanding of the social contract that underlies the founding of America is the cause of the resistance to bigger government and central planning, as reflected in resistance to Obamacare and health care reform. According to the authors, Americans believe that “government’s job is to promote individual freedom rather than promote the common good” and that Americans consider these beliefs to be mutually exclusive.

They claim such views are based on an incorrect interpretation of social contract theory put forth by John Locke way back in 1690 in his Second Treatise of Government. The authors’ solution to the resistance problem is to correct our misconceptions about Locke so that we might understand that “social welfare policies” actually fit nicely within the social contract tradition.

The idea, however, that those who oppose big government and central planning believe that freedom is incompatible with the common good is purely imaginary. In the real world, those who oppose big government tend to do so because they believe individual freedom is the means that best promotes the common good in the first place. The difference between liberals and their opponents lies in the method of obtaining the common good, not in the desire for it. The authors are simply knocking down a straw man (gee, what a surprise).

The big government approach advocated by liberals such as Carroll fits within what economist Thomas Sowell has called the “unconstrained” vision of the world (see here). The unconstrained vision stresses that man’s understanding and disposition is inherently good and “capable of intentionally creating social benefits.” Within this vision, special individuals who have progressed further than the rest of us will make social decisions on our behalf on “explicitly rationalistic grounds, for the common good.” Eventually, the rest of us will come to support these decisions.

Sowell explains that those who disagree with the liberal vision tend to take a negative view of human nature and its potential. In this “constrained” vision, human nature is egocentric and humans lack the intellectual and moral capacity to rationally plan a society for the common good. Rather, decisions are made through unplanned social processes that have evolved over generations, such as moral traditions, competitive markets, and families.

These social processes in turn create social benefits and do it better than any system of central planning. And individual freedom to choose within these processes is an integral part of society. Liberty, as Friedrich Hayek has pointed out, is an overriding moral principle of political action within this vision.

The evidence supports the view that the world works along the lines of the constrained rather than the unconstrained vision. We need only consider the natural experiments of numerous governments over the last hundred years to see how centralized government and central planning have worked out. And the results are not encouraging, to say the least.

Central planners have killed tens of millions of their own citizens and destroyed entire economies. And these results aren’t limited to the examples of the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, and China in the twentieth century. More recently, we’ve seen the destruction of Venezuela during the meager fourteen years that Hugo Chavez wielded power. Even a kinder, gentler form of big government has left countries in western Europe with stagnant economies, including 25% and higher unemployment rates (over 50% for young people).

The case against central planning and for smaller government and individual freedom isn’t hard to make or understand. It doesn’t involve social contract theory so much as a proper understanding of the limits of human nature and acknowledgment that the evidence supports this understanding. But Carroll and other liberals are incapable of grasping any of this. The best they can do is set up and knock down straw men. Talk about limitations.

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