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Why is the U.S. so bad at government?

In diverse countries, government creates tension and dissension whereas the market creates cohesion.

by James Leroy Wilson
October 22, 2009

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Why is the U.S. so bad at government?

The U.S. is the world's education spending leader, but gets only mediocre results.

The U.S. leads the world in incarceration rates, yet still fares poorly compared to other developed nations in violent crime - worse than all in murder rates unless you include some former Soviet bloc countries.

The U.S. also leads the way in per capita motor vehicle deaths on the government roads.  (One may object that personal responsibility may have something to do with that, and not the government. But, as Brad Edmonds suggests in his forward to Walter Block's The Privatization of Road and Highways, let's turn it around: what if the roads were privately-owned and there were so many fatalities? Wouldn't the private sector be blamed?)

The U.S. spends more on the military than the next fifty countries combined. But over the past twenty years, what we've seen certainly isn't "peace through strength." Secured by two oceans and two non-hostile countries, Americans are still more vulnerable to terrorist attack, and our soldiers are less safe, than perhaps any in the world.

For all this, the national debt increased from $826 billion to over $10 trillion over the past thirty years.

One thing I left out: our convoluted public-private health care system is the most expensive in the world. No wonder: Americans aren't particularly healthy. There are numerous studies that rank us shockingly low among developed nations on a variety of health measures, such as 33rd in infant morality rate.

Obviously, I'm suspicious that more government control over health will improve it. Actually, the system as it is now underscores why government itself is ineffective in other areas.

Consider a rich man who hires a personal physician for his ailing father. The son also meddles, sometimes telling the doctor what he'd like done and what not. Sometimes he threatens to fire the doctor if he does some things the son doesn't like but which the doctor thinks are needed, and sometimes the son demands what he thinks his father would want but which the doctor thinks is unneeded.

The problem is, the doctor's patient is not his customer. So he has to walk a tightrope to do the best he can to serve the one yet satisfy the other.

The notion of "customer" seems crass and objectionable to some people when it comes to health care. But somebody has to pay the doctor. Nobody can work for free. The one who pays the doctor is the customer.

Government provided the incentives for health care to be an insurance-dominated industry. (Even though there are private companies making profits, this is no "free" market.) This means most Americans, when they get sick, become patients but not customers. Medicare or an insurance company is the customer, and the patient pays only a small percentage of the total costs. (Thanks to David Goldhill for making the point in this video.)

The service provider has a conflict of interest, because the person who's supposed to be served is not the customer whose demands must be met to receive payment. More government funding and control can not fix this problem; it will only make it worse.

Public school teachers are in the same boat. The families of the children they teach are not their customers, governments are. The teacher's job is not to meet the educational needs of children but, rather, to meet the standards of governments.

Police are under no legal obligation to help you even when you're in distress; private security companies must protect their customers or go out of business.

The conclusion that must be reached is that in most if not all cases, private agreements are better than government policy because in the private sector the person who is being served, and the customer whose demands must be met, will more often than not be the one and same person. Even in other developed countries, where government seems to work better, they would still be better off with less of it.

But this doesn't answer our initial problem: why is American government worse?

I didn't have time to see if there's data on the following, but they're worth considering:

  • What are the arrest rates in communities in which everyone, including police officers, look like and speak alike and have the same cultural heritage, compared to communities with stark racial and ethnic divisions?
  •  How much will a classroom learn if every child has the same native language, compared to classrooms with several different native languages?
  • How efficient will a public hospital be if everyone speaks the same language and leads generally similar lifestyles, compared to one in a multicultural community?
  • In a country of ten million who speak their own distinct language, how rich can the richest novelist, recording star, or entrepreneur get compared to those in a country of 300 million who speak a language that over a billion speak? In which country would you expect a greater income gap between rich and poor? In which country would you expect more widespread agreement about the "common good?"

My argument isn't that European countries are (or, at least, have been) less diverse and better-governed than the U.S. and that therefore the U.S. should be less diverse. Rather, I'm suggesting that America's diversity compounds the problem of providing government services as opposed to private-sector services. Though we may hold that all have equal dignity and equal rights, most of us, deep down, prefer and empathize more with those who share our beliefs and manners than with those who do not. When government employees and the people they serve are not alike, there is bound to be greater inefficiency and hostility.

While all developed nations would be better off with less government, this is especially true in the most diverse countries. Resentments build when minorities feel they're being abused by authority figures, and when majorities believe minorities get special privileges and consume more tax dollars than they produce.

And yet, these resentments aren't found in our ethnic restaurants or in our sports arenas. They don't exist where Americans of all colors and creeds are free to do business.

Courtesy is required to build good business relationships and healthy long-term profits. It is not required at the nearby DMV or Post Office.

For diverse nations to develop greater cohesion, it is a necessity to reduce the size of government. Bigger government will only serve as a detriment.

Comments (1)

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Paul Bonneau writes:
October 25, 2009
I too noticed this. I was reading one article that mentioned New York City has as many people in govt. education as all of Germany.

I think the diversity Wilson mentions has some effect on this, but not all.

I believe it is a cultural difference. When you read the writings of folks like Toqueville, they are amazed at how Americans are motivated by commerce. Chasing the almighty dollar. Work, work, work.

It's like Americans, deep down, are fundamentally entrepreneurs. We got the malcontents from Europe, people who didn't want to be a cog in a system. Europeans are natural socialists and fascists. The systems they create work, more or less, because the actors are restrained by their need to fit in, to be a good cog.

Americans, on the other hand, are not natural socialists or fascists. Whenever they find themselves in such a system, they are unrestrained in doing things like building empires, something that would be naturally limited in the free market, but is not in government. They act somewhat like they would in a free market system, which is inappropriate.

Actually,I don't think socialism or fascism "works", but it sure seems to work a little better in Europe than here. We don't do socialism well. Look at the government schools, a joke. Our kids are at the bottom of international comparisons, and the competition is just other government school systems.

Government health care in this country will be a disaster. It's not Sweden.

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