Often when some unexpected challenge faces a person, someone asks, “What are you going to do about this?” The answer, frequently delivered with casual confidence, tends to be: “I’ll think of something.”
No answer and attitude better characterizes how to think about problem solving in a free society. Unlike the attitude in the Nanny State, which requires massive bureaucracies to plan for endless and often completely unanticipated “solutions,” in a free society problem solving is left to citizens who individually or cooperatively volunteer to address the challenges, great or small, that face them.
And this approach is most likely to bear better fruit than does the bureaucratic approach for a number of reasons, including the fact that local knowledge is often far more useful and important than what far-away bureaucrats have at their disposal, with their loose, general theories as to what people in society need and want.
If one believes, however, that to meet these challenges, one requires a well-established formula and the force of government to apply it, then confidence in “I’ll think of something” will tend to lack.
Of course, history and familiarity of how governments work confirms that (a) state officials do not know or care enough to solve the problems they take on as if they were the only ones fit to address them, and (b) these officials have their own agendas and will attempt to provide solutions not to the problems their constituents face but to what they themselves think is important to deal with.
This is the gist of public choice theory, for which professor James Buchanan received the Nobel Prize in economic science back in the mid-1980s. Public servants, so-called, are anything but! Indeed, nearly all the problems these men and women are called upon – and promise – to solve amount to the particular problems of some select group of citizens (the special interests we hear so much about from political candidates, those terrible folks whom decent, upstanding candidates promise never to listen to once they get elected!).
There are few problems shared by all members of the public! Instead, different individuals and groups have different problems, in different measures, with different levels of urgency, so the solutions cannot be the one-size-fits-all type, which is what governments usually propose.
It is not so much that the politicians and bureaucrats are a bunch of greedy officials, as some believe public choice theory claims! No, they just have their own agendas, very possibly motivated from concerns and goodwill but mostly thoroughly misdirected. So it is a bad idea to entrust problem solving to them.
Even when these men and women are dedicated, hard-working individuals and do achieve some good, it is virtually always at great and avoidable cost and sacrifice. Devoting taxes to this project deprives people of the chance to solve ones to which they would choose to contribute their resources.
This is a plain fact that anyone can understand without needing the brain power of a Nobel Prize winner. I am always impressed by the impact of the thought experiment in which a family with an old car would devote the money extorted from them in taxes to buy new tires for the jalopy but is deprived of that chance and then suffers a fatal blow-out. Few think to blame taxation for this, yet it could be just the thing that led to the disaster!
Of course when governments become accepted as the default problem solvers – people are urged to call their members of city council or Congress when they see something needing attention – the “I’ll think of something” attitude can be seriously arrested.
Bad money drives out good, and bad habits also drive out good ones. Yet, in the end, there really is no better source of problem solving in human life and communities than the personal initiative to think about what is the solution to one’s problems, problems that are most likely going to be best solved with just the knowledge that only those close to them possess.
Tibor Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at Chapman University and is a research fellow at the Pacific Research Institute and Hoover Institution (Stanford). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. His most recent book is “Libertarianism Defended,” (Ashgate, 2006). E-mail him at [email protected].