I Dream of Do-Nothing Governments and Faithless Bureaucracies

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George Orwell once said, “some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.” This was an astute observation, which is as true today as it has ever been.

The highest positions of power in governments today are invariably occupied by very smart, very well-educated people whose policies are guided by a plethora of intellectuals from academia and industry. And yet, today, throughout the world, governments are doing stupid things. Plenty of stupid things.

(Trump, as a non-intellectual, is an anomaly. His behaviour is hard to predict because his thinking seems to be highly inconsistent. From the perspective of liberty, what he’s done so far ranges from the ridiculously bad to the actually quite good).

What do I mean by stupid? I’m defining stupid here as pursuing a course of action that can’t possibly achieve its intended aim. The greatest degree of stupidity being a course of action that can not only fail to achieve its aim, but is likely to achieve the opposite of the intended outcome.

An example of such on the individual level could be taking ones (dry) clothes off in an attempt to warm up. This is stupid. It achieves the opposite of the desired outcome. An example on the political level is governments compelling businesses to pay higher than the market price for unskilled labour, with the intention of raising the general standard of living for everyone on low incomes.

This is also stupid. For, in the long-run, this government action can only lead to a lower standard of living for the people it aims to benefit (due to how producers must respond to rising costs of production, and the knock-on negative effects this inevitably has on their unskilled employees).

This is just one example of many, many instances of stupid government action. Other examples from the past and present are nationalised education and healthcare, the welfare state, and foreign military interventions in the Middle East.

I’m assuming most politicians sincerely desire to achieve the outcomes their policies appear to aim at. In other words, I’m assuming most aren’t merely pretending to want to achieve these ends just to get elected or re-elected. If they are, then policies such as the minimum wage or rent control, from the politicians’ perspective, are actually smart. Not stupid.

They’re smart policies for politicians who want to get elected or re-elected because the public doesn’t understand how such policies leave the intended beneficiaries of them worse off in the long-run. So they will vote for politicians who advocate such policies, either because they believe it will improve their own lot or out of a desire to do social good.

No doubt there are some politicians who don’t sincerely desire to do any social good and only seek money and/or the thrill of power, but most likely they are a minority. Our everyday experiences remind us that most people are good and want to do good.

That most politicians are probably sincere in their endeavours is not necessarily a good thing, however. Perversely, it can be a bad thing. An authoritarian government run by particularly smart and sincere people may well be worse than one run by easily corruptible people of average intelligence.

Long ago, another famed author, C.S. Lewis, expressed this point:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

In some South American countries, such as Cuba and now Venezuela, where there is little economic freedom and much poverty, easily bribe-able government officials are a blessing in disguise. It’s often the only way for people to get the freedom they need to act to alleviate their own suffering and to engage in wealth-creating economic exchange.

I suspect it’s much easier to bribe government officials in poor countries because government workers are only a little less poor than everyone else. A bribe of, say, $500 is likely to be far more tempting to a bureaucrat in a poor country than it would be to a government official in a wealthy western society where public sector workers enjoy a much higher standard of living.

I also suspect that public sector workers in poorer countries with experience of undemocratic government have less trust in authority and faith in the state as a force for social good, and are therefore more likely to be persuaded to undermine it. In western societies, where government has historically been democratic and more restrained, government workers are probably more likely to maintain their faith in authority and refrain from letting people break the rules – even when they consider those rules are absurd or unjust.

In decades from now when my niece and nephew find themselves at my age, I can only hope that, as a result of cold, hard experience, faith in the state and what they have dedicated their lives to has waned in the hearts and minds of the UK’s army of bureaucrats to the point where the once impenetrable wall of bureaucracy starts to crumble.

I hope that those in the highest positions of power in government won’t be sincere and highly motivated intellectuals with absolute faith in their own virtue and the state as a force for social good. But instead common-as-muck individuals who are only there because someone had to be and hardly anyone else wanted to be.

Men and women in government so uncertain about how to use the powers at their disposal and so lacking in conviction about the role of the state in society that they fail to commit to a single policy to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ society.

Rather than more government by more intelligent people, I dream of a future of do-nothing governments under which economies can start to do-something again. And I dream of faith-less bureaucracies which prompt people to develop a new faith in freedom.

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