A friend recently challenged my habitual skepticism about the government: “Why is it,” he asked, “that if something is a public service, we always question whether it should be? Isn’t that just ideology?” It’s a good question, and since the views that underpin it are widely held, it is worth answering here. Note that I will be focusing only on government supply of goods and services, not arguing for libertarianism, still less for anarchy. Furthermore, I am only arguing for a prima facie skepticism, which can be overcome in specific cases. I will say more on that at the end. And, before I begin, two disclaimers. First, none of what follows will be original. It’s just important stuff that bears repetition. And second, this will be quite long. My apologies.
Of course the most familiar reason for being skeptical about anything the government does is ideological. Government action often involves coercion. This might be less obvious with public services, which citizens are not always forced to use. But they are forced to use some, and most others are funded at least in part by coercively-levied taxes. If we value freedom at all, coercion is presumptively wrong, and must be justified. But people might (1) not value freedom, or (2) not think economic freedom (that is, freedom of contract and property rights), which is mostly at stake when government expands to provide goods and services, is valuable, or (3) think that while economic freedom is of some value, it is easily outweighed by other considerations. Those are deep philosophical commitments, and I will avoid arguing about them here, because I think that the skeptical case can be made out without challenging them.
What drives the non-ideological version of the skeptical case is a concern not with liberty but with efficiency. Now, efficiency is often thought of as an ideological dirty word. It’s not. Efficiency is simply the fact of using fewer scarce resources (whether labour, capital, or natural resources) to achieve a given objective. I fail to see why anyone, whatever one’s deep philosophical commitments, would be opposed to that.
There are three main reasons why a concern with efficiency supports prima facie skepticism with government delivery of goods and services, which I will discuss in order of, I think, increasing subtlety.
The first of these reasons comes from “public choice” economics, which analyses the behaviour of the government on the assumption that the people who serve in it―whether as legislators or as bureaucrats―are self-interested agents concerned with their own welfare. Perhaps this assumption can be taken too far―I’m willing to believe that government officials are partly motivated by what they see as the public good, and not only by self-interest. Still, it would be naïve to assume that they are entirely selfless and do not care about things like financial rewards, leisure, and re-election in the case of legislators. Public choice theory warns us that government officials are likely to want to give out favours to their friends, campaign contributors, or pet causes. And the provision of goods and services by the government is a great vehicle for that. A public investment fund can be instructed to protect a favoured corporation from a hostile take-over, as the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec regularly is; a public company can be told to give jobs, or to provide cheap goods for the supporters of the politicians in power. Of course, allocation of resources in the basis of politicians or bureaucrats’ self-interests is seldom going to be efficient.
The second reason to question whether the government should provide goods and services comes from F.A. Hayek’s insight about the limitations imposed on government planners by their lack of information. Even if public choice theorists were wrong and government officials were invariably concerned with the public good and nothing else, they would be hampered in its pursuit by their inability to get a hold of all the information about people’s needs and wants. That information comes from price fluctuations in a free market, with increasing prices signalling increased demand for a good or service, and/or reflecting the increased scarcity of the resources necessary to produce it. When the price mechanism is replaced by government control, with prices of goods and services produced by the government determined (in some considerable part) by political considerations rather than by the cost of and demand for these goods and services, the allocation of resources to the production of these goods and services need not bear any relationship to the actual demand for them and to possibility that these resources would be better expended on something else.
The third, related, reason for skepticism about the government as a supplier of goods and services is the difficulty to know whether it is supplying them efficiently. In a free market, an inefficient producer (one that is, for example, paying two workers for doing a job that one could do, or buying supplies for an above-market price because of its owner’s relationship with the supplier, etc.) will be seen as charging more for its products than its competitors. It will have to mend its ways or to fail. But when that producer is a monopolist, as the government often is for the goods and services it provides, it is much more difficult to tell whether it is inefficient. And the case of the government is worse than that of a private monopolist. For one thing, it is not just the monopolist’s shareholders and its customers, but all the taxpayers who are paying for its inefficiency. For another, a private monopolist’s inefficiency invites competitors to enter the market and undercut it. But the government usually can prohibit would-be competitors from doing so, even if there are any, which is not always the case.
Now these claims are somewhat overstated. Democracy and other limitations on governmental power go some way towards correcting at least the extremes of self-interested behaviour by public officials. And although we usually cannot rely on the market to prevent the government from being inefficient, free and democratic polities have other mechanisms to compensate for this. Democracy makes it possible to, in effect, change (part of) the management of the government-supplier if the incumbent managers are inefficient. Public institutions such as auditors-general are empowered to investigate and maybe try to eliminate government inefficiencies. And private actors, especially journalists, can do the same thing. But these mechanisms are imperfect. Elections are fought over only a handful of issues, not all of them having to do with the incumbent officials’ public-spiritedness and managerial competence, and against a background of massive political ignorance. Many bureaucrats are subject to very limited and indirect electoral control anyway. Self-interest can move politicians and bureaucrats to impede the work of public and private investigators. And so on.
So we have good reason to be skeptical of governmental provision of goods and services. But skepticism should not make us oppose it in every case. The government is likely enough to do a bad job of providing goods and services, but the market sometimes does an even worse one. This is the case of “public goods,” that is goods or services the producers of which cannot, for any of a number of reasons, charge those who benefit from them anything like a price that would make their production worthwhile (and not to be confused with “the public good”). (For more on that, see this entry in Larry Solum’s Legal Theory Lexicon.) Still, the questions whether a given good or service is subject to such a “market failure,” and whether, if so, the market failure is greater than the “government failure” resulting from its production by the government, are always worth asking.
As I said in the beginning of this post, all that does not amount to a libertarian manifesto. Even if we are skeptical about the government providing goods and services, we might decide that the government (that is, the taxpayers) ought to pay, or help pay, for people to acquire some goods and services on the free market. That’s how social security works―instead of the government producing food and feeding the unemployed, the elderly, or the infirm, the government gives them money so that they can feed themselves. And of course even if we are skeptical about the government as a supplier of goods and services, we have good reasons to want the government to engage in (some) regulation to prevent some negative effects people’s economic activity might have on third parties, air pollution being a classic example.
Despite all these qualifications, this might not convince those who think that economics is incipiently and terminally ideological. To them, I can only quote Hayek:
It may sound noble to say, ‘Damn economics, let us build up a decent world’―but it is, in fact, merely irresponsible.