… and I’m here to help.

Ronald Reagan famously declared these the most terrifying words in the English language. His quip embodied his form of conservatism, and ably summarized the repeated (and, as most libertarians will tell you, inevitable) failures of government do-good efforts.

We small-government types have known this for decades, but we don’t dominate the press or taste-make the culture, and even many of the elected Republicans, who might nominally pay lip service to small government, rarely meet a do-good initiative that they don’t support. No matter that the essence of limited government is that there are many good ideas that, nevertheless, should not involve government.

But, every so often, the folks who routinely back every do-good idea out there have a reality check. The latest to cross my notice is a PBS story about how decades of pushing people to get college degrees has left America with a shortage of tradespeople. This shortage has been plainly true for a long time. Yet, instead of recognizing that both the government’s messaging about getting a college degree (itself based on an over-generalization of its value-added) and the government’s underwriting of student loans have skewed the labor pool in a counterproductive way, we now hear that college should be free, and we hear of government initiatives to encourage people to go into the trades. As to free college – dare I be snarky and say a free degree will be worth every penny? A discussion for another day. As to the trade shortage, though, perhaps what government needs to do is simply stop trying to guide people. Period.

The track record is awful enough to make that the obvious answer.

  • The government issued dietary guidelines, in the form of a food pyramid that emphasized lots of carbs and low fat. America got obese.
  • The government wanted to encourage an ownership society, and “encouraged,” that is to say coerced, banks via the Community Restoration Act and other means to write more mortgage loans to less qualified candidates. It then started soaking up many of those coerced loans. Ownership went from 60% to 65%, prices climbed like a rocket. Then, the bubble burst, a financial crisis precipitated, people lost homes and/or the life savings they pumped into the overvalued homes, and ownership dropped back to 60%.
  • The government cracked down on prescription of opioid painkillers. Overdoses and overdose deaths skyrocketed, as people turned to the black market to manage their pain or feed their addictions.
  • The government declared a War on Poverty. Half a century later, we have a permanent dependent underclass, and even those who aren’t content to live on the dole face the increased hurdle of the welfare trap.
  • The government decided that Saddam Hussein, and later on, Moammar Gadhafi, were Bad Guys who needed to be removed from power. Their removal had countless adverse unintended consequences, including vacuums that ISIS and other radical elements stepped up to fill, a substantial shift in power balance in the Middle East, countless civilian deaths, and humanitarian crises that contributed to the waves of refugees inundating Europe.
  • The government decided that solar and wind energy are the preference for the future, and encouraged both via various mechanisms. Spectacular failures like Solyndra ensued, and the desire to expire subsidies and other mechanisms are exposing the cost realities of those production forms.
  • The War on Drugs has cost American taxpayers over a trillion dollars, yet half a century into it, anyone can get a FAR more potent version of any drug, with minimal risk. Meanwhile, billions of dollars get shipped out to drug cartels every year, where they are used not only to murder, but have a destabilizing effect on foreign nations. An entire industry of enforcement and incarceration has arisen in this country, police are now militarized “others” instead of being “us,” our rights and liberties have been horribly eroded in order to fight this “war,” people who’ve never harmed another have had their life prospects destroyed by criminal convictions, people who could benefit from treatment opt to do without due to of fear of arrest, huge sums of money are taken out of the productive economy, and gangs and organized crime dominate neighborhoods and keep those living there in fear.
  • Government first involved itself in health insurance way back in the late 1930s, when it legislated preferential tax treatment for employer-provided insurance (an employer can deduct the cost of the health insurance without it being treated as taxable income for the employee) skewed the market away from individual insurance. It compounded the problem in WWII by imposing a wage freeze, that employers dodged by expanding benefits offered in order to entice scarce workers. The plethora of other distortions this created were not addressed by undoing the initial distortion, but by imposing more distortions, including mandates, requirements, restrictions, and the like. Every attempt to fix health insurance by adding more government manages to make things worse, and yet the loudest drum being beaten right now is for even more government in health care.
  • The quality of public education has been stagnant for at least four decades, despite inflation-adjusted per-student spending tripling in that span, and despite (or perhaps because of?) the Federal government getting involved in 1979 with the creation of the Department of Education. Worse, in inner cities, quality has declined. Yet, instead of admitting they’re getting it wrong and getting their meddling paws out, our progressive politicians want government to do even more, and to skew outcomes even more, as we are witnessing in New York City.
  • Passenger rail, other than the Northeast corridor, has proven to be a bottomless money sink. Despite that, good-government types continue to hawk rail mega projects as the way of the future (California is vastly scaling back its planned LA-SF rail program because… well… bottomless money sink), perhaps naively or tendentiously believing that what works in Japan and other smaller, more population-dense nations can be replicated in this giant, mostly-empty country.

I could go on and on. And, this list would be woefully incomplete without mention of Social Security and Medicare, two programs whose unfunded liabilities are, depending on your methodology and pessimism, three to ten times the size of the unfathomably absurd $21 trillion national debt. Social Security is going to “run dry” in a decade or two, and Medicare is kept going with coercion, accounting gimmicks, and frequent patching, but no one dare speak of fixing Social Security (the way Chile and the Scandinavian nations did: by creating an individual account, defined contribution program), and our Presidential hopefuls want to expand Medicare to cover everybody.

Tack on top of that government’s spectacular failures in other areas, in efforts that aren’t social engineering. Just a smattering of examples:

  • Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
  • The US Post Office (a monopoly that loses money). As for monopolies that lose money, New York City’s Off Track Betting enterprise was a bookmaking monopoly that lost money. Leave it to the government to figure out how to lose money running a monopolized gambling operation.
  • The intelligence failures around 9/11 and Iraqi WMDs, to name just two.
  • The abuses in Abu Ghraib.
  • Oversight failures that allowed Madoff, Enron, the aforementioned 2008 financial crisis, and other wealth destructions to happen. People like to pretend the financial world is a lawless Wild West, but it is massively regulated, heavily scrutinized, and supposedly warded by people and agencies with phenomenal power and investigative tools. And, yet…

These are all failures of government. Not of a Democratic government or a Republican government, but of the principle of do-good, active-involvement government itself. Both history and the realities of human nature make such failures inevitable, and to insist that, if only we put the right people in charge, they won’t happen any more, is pure self-indulgent delusion. This reality, this inescapable conclusion that the more government we have, the more problems we create, is the practical side of libertarianism. We need some government, because national defense can’t be crowd-sourced, and because it works better if individual and property rights are adjudicated by a dispassionate third party than by law-of-the-claw, but the inherent shortcomings and inevitable disappointments behoove us to keep the size of that government small.

It sounds trite and cliche to say, but government is indeed a necessary evil. It should be small and limited.

There’s a lovely little benefit from small, limited government. It won’t matter much what party dominates a small, limited government, because its core functions are not particularly party-specific, and because its impact on your daily life will be far, FAR less than it currently is.

How many failures, how many wastes of time and money, how much harm, and how much pointless loss of liberty will it take for people to stop clinging to the false promise of a benevolent, active, large government that actually makes things better?

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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