A Failure of Imagination

A Failure of Imagination February 5, 2009

As time goes by, I become more and more convinced that one of the main things that keeps government in business is the inability of people to imagine how anyone else could deal with the sometimes serious problems that arise in the social order. If private action fails to solve a given social problem as well as we might like, the answer is more government. Whereas if the government fails, even spectacularly, in dealing with a particular social ill, the answer is… more government. People respond to the poor performance of a government initiative not by suggesting that it be abolished, but rather by calling for government to redouble it’s efforts. Failing businesses have a tendency to go out of business (well, at least most of the time). Failing government programs, by contrast, tend to get more money. Which, when you think about it, is not a recipe for success.

People act this way, I think, not because they are just irrational, but because they don’t see an alternative. Yes, public schools in some parts of the country are just plain awful. But what’s the alternative? Just let kids roam the streets all day? Yes, the Post Office is often inefficient, costly, and they lose your mail a lot. Still, someone has to deliver the mail. If not the government, then who? Okay, so the response to hurricane Katrina by the government was just awful, and the rebuilding efforts in many cases haven’t been much better. But it’s not like anyone else is going to do the job, so the government has to. To a lot of people, saying that some problem should be left to “private charity” or “the market” sounds like saying “let’s ignore the problem and hope it goes away.” Which hardly sounds like a counsel of prudence. The truth is, though, that allowing everyone in America to try and come up with a solution to a given social problem often works a lot better than trying to impose a single solution from the top down.

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