TGIF: Government Undermines Civilization

by | May 31, 2024

TGIF: Government Undermines Civilization

by | May 31, 2024

doctor

The good, great, and prosperous society depends on ever-widening trust among strangers. It’s not blind trust — ways to hedge against cheaters abound — but trust is vital. It is as vital as respect for private property and privacy. Like the system of private property, the system of trust can withstand repeated assaults, but it is not invulnerable. It can crumble and fall.

We deal constantly with people around the world whom we do not know (we don’t even know their names) and will never meet. We’re better off — richer and more comfortable — for it. Trust is fostered through repeat dealings, reputation, credit-card dispute resolution, loan collateral, online ratings of sellers and buyers, and more. Think of eBay and Yelp. We need to trust people who have things we want to buy or rent but also people who know more than we do. No one can know everything. Hence, we rely on experts and authorities in the nonpolitical sense.

Imagine if all your dealings were exclusively with the members of your small tribe (assuming you could trust all the members). Life would be far poorer, not to mention short. Adam Smith famously spelled out the reason: the division of labor, specialization, innovation, greater productivity, and trade. Smith went on to say that “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.” Globalization — worldwide trust — is the thing to strive for.

The point is that whatever undermines trust on a large scale necessarily undermines civilization, civility, prosperity, and the ability to flourish. It is no small matter.

No individual or private group can erode trust on a large scale. But the government can. To state the obvious, the people who constitute the government routinely exercise powers no one else may exercise. Its monopoly excludes competition and suppresses disagreement. It can disparage rivals and protect its status as the only source of valid information. The state is centralized decision-making in contrast to the decentralized competitive decision-making of the marketplace. Disagreement cannot be suppressed, only rebutted. The marketplace encompasses the production of ideas, not only goods and services. Indeed, if government controls the production of goods and services, it necessarily controls the production of ideas and vice versa.

The state’s power flows from a combination of ideology (analogous to religion) and force that most people consider legitimate because of the ideology they’ve been taught. That’s why the state invests so much in propaganda through schools, media, and other vehicles.

Because of its unique features, the state can erode trust in a big way, and the results can be catastrophic. If anyone needs proof, consider the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the government dominates medicine and medical research at the federal and state levels, the pandemic information and policy response was concentrated in a relatively small number of politicians, bureaucrats, and anointed authorities. Unsurprisingly, from the start they erred, lied (nobly and cynically), misled, fudged, obscured, misinformed, and engaged in countless other dubious actions, including face-saving, that harmed the public. The subjects included the alleged need for self-quarantine, business closings, distancing, masking, vaccines, discrediting any inquiry into COVID’s origin, and more,

Motives are secondary. Even sincere people will tell “noble lies” for their “good cause.” Assuming good motives does not give the decision-makers and their advisors a pass. We all know how the road to hell is paved.

Because the government’s performance during the pandemic was so outrageous, the status of experts seems to have fallen — not just the government’s experts, but all experts. It may not have filtered down to the auto mechanics, but I imagine it has spread far. (My doctor has the best of intentions, but he probably takes guidance from government-backed research and health agencies, if for no other reason than to protect himself from lawsuits.) Skepticism about experts is understandable. What would happen if another pandemic were to come along? Would most people believe the government or think it’s up to its old tricks? Remember the boy who cried wolf?

This distrust is both good and bad, but we have to make distinctions. We ought to distinguish between the government’s “experts” and truly independent experts in a system left unmolested by the state. Unfortunately, we live in a mixed system. So what can we do when the government has poisoned the concept of expertise?

The best solution is to separate state and medicine, as we must separate it from the rest of reality. Pending that, however, reason must be our guide to the sweet spot between blind faith and total rejection. We need experts and authorities. Few of us can accurately self-diagnose or properly self-medicate. (It should not be illegal, of course.) We need doctors, dentists, lawyers, car mechanics, plumbers, accountants, electricians, and so on. For most of us, DIY goes only so far, even in the age of blessed YouTube. Relying on experts requires trust. We can acquire information from friends, private certification boards, consumer magazines, and rating agencies, but that does not dispense with the need for trust. (Possessing a government license is certainly no protection from quacks and shysters.)

Still, even with fully independent experts, we would do well to be cautious. Every expert is a human being, with all the potential weaknesses the rest of us share in varying degrees: biases, fallibility, pride, myopia, a weakness for flattery, an aversion to looking foolish or bad, and a reluctance to say those two most difficult phrases: I don’t know and I was wrong. This is why people often get second opinions on important matters.

This is not just a reason to be cautious; it’s why we must keep the experts away from power. It’s why we must abolish power. When allied with politicians, experts are largely exempt from the tests they would face every day in the marketplace. Dissidents would not be suppressed when exposing errors, misinterpretations of data, and flawed methods for testing medicines and vaccines.

Moreover, medical experts advising politicians, could not pretend that their political and moral preferences were dispassionate scientific judgments. Science would not so readily become scientism. Doctors and other scientists don’t have college degrees in making trade-offs for other people.

Yes, the marketplace is risky. People who have no idea what they are talking about would be free to say anything. But that would be better than having those people in government positions. The decentralized free marketplace provides abundant protection from frauds and incompetents.

Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We should not reject expertise and discriminating trust. But we should get rid of the corrupter of those things: the state.

Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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