Monday, November 06, 2006

What Is Government Good At?

"I was talking to some people last night about different approaches to government. A woman asked me if there was anything I thought government did better than the private sector. Sure, I replied. Killing people. That is the government's best thing and governments have had unparalleled success in killing people over the last 100 years. Start with the murder of innocents. Hitler and Stalin dwarf the worst serial killer. Even if you count 9/11 as a private act of murder, that's a few thousand versus many millions. No comparison.

Then there's war. Government is very good at war relative to the private sector. Some wars are better than others. Some are ghastly. But there is no disputing that government armies, regardless of the merits of the cause, are better at killing people than private armies.

Come on, someone else said, before I could lengthen the list with maybe the enforcement of contracts and the rest of a very short list. What about education and health care? We can't leave that to the private sector. That launched us into a long discussion of the current state of the public schools and whether the vigilance of the FDA in protecting us from dangerous drugs has been a net benefit or a net loss. . . .
This seems to me to be a very revealing conversation. I think there is one word that characterizes the essence of government, and that word is coercion. Government is inherently coercive. It seems to me that Russell Roberts' answer to the question about what government does better than the private sector is based upon this observation. Now, what about education and health care? Since government is inherently coercive, if I thought government did these things better than the private sector, then I would have to think that education and health care could be better done with coercion than without. I don't happen to think that.

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