Saturday, April 28, 2012

No They Can’t: Why Government Fails But Individuals Succeed

In his television specials and in books like Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel - Why Everything You Know is Wrong and Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media, reporter John Stossel has built an award-winning reputation as a tenacious debunker of commonly-held assumptions, and as a thorn in the side of business-as-usual bureaucrats. Now, as a welcome antidote to President Obama’s “Yes, we can!” big-government campaign mantra, comes Stossel’s latest book, No They Can’t: Why Government Fails But Individuals Succeed.

The libertarian Stossel hosts his own show and a series of specials on the Fox Business Network, and appears frequently on other Fox News shows. His consumer reporting has made him a nineteen-time Emmy winner and a five-time honoree for excellence by the National Press Club. Those familiar with Stossel’s laidback, plainspoken, eminently reasonable TV persona (and who isn’t?) will find it in full evidence here in No They Can’t as well.
The book’s thirteen chapters are devoted to a wide range of the biggest issues facing our government today, such as health care, the war on drugs, education, military spending, and the “budget insanity.” Stossel points out that our instinct is to believe that government can and should step in and resolve such problems. In a rhetorical device which he returns to frequently throughout the book, he posits “What Intuition Tempts Us to Believe: When there’s a problem, government should act.” He answers that with “What Reality Taught Me: Individuals should act, not government.”

Other examples of What Intuition Tempts Us to Believe: “If we just elect the right politicians, we can reinvent government and balance its books.” “Individuals are selfish, so we need government to ‘level the playing field’ and make life ‘fair.’” “The Food Police want to help us make better choices.” “It’s nice for people to have their say, but some speech is so hateful and offensive that we must limit it.” “Education is too important to be left to the uncertainty of market competition.” Chapter by chapter, Stossel systematically lays out his case for why these assumptions and many, many more about our government’s problem-solving capabilities are wrong on all counts, and why the truth is actually counter-intuitive.

The overarching, “most socially destructive” assumption of all, writes Stossel, is “the intuitively appealing belief that when there is a problem, government action is the best way to solve it.” For him, “Good government has to mean less government.” One would think that this sentiment would put Stossel squarely in the Tea Party camp. But he believes that even many Tea Party activists don’t want to cut the big government tether entirely (“61% of Tea Party sympathizers believe free trade has hurt the United States,” for example). And he notes that even Tea Party politician favorites can’t be trusted once they’re in office.
He reserves most of his attacks for the big-government left (“Progressives always fear the ‘power’ of business, rather than the power of government”). He won’t endear himself to environmentalists, for example, with this take on the government stepping in to protect endangered species: “How do we save them? Here’s an idea: Sell them. And eat them.”
But he doesn’t believe Republicans have all the answers either:

Both parties share the fatal conceit of believing that their grandiose plan will solve America’s problems. Neither plan will… It doesn’t matter which party is in power. No one spends other people’s money as carefully as he spends his own.
Stossel’s solutions to the country’s problems lie in the free market. “Government is like someone who gets in front of a parade and pretends to lead it,” he writes, whereas “creative minds of the private sector invent solutions that never occur to government bureaucrats.” While the free market isn’t perfect, Stossel says, bad things happen when government interferes – primarily, infringements on our liberty.

Take what Stossel calls the Food Police, for example. Do we really need the government to save us from our own poor food choices? “Government goes astray when it tries to protect us from ourselves,” he says. Free competition protects consumers best. In any case, whether or not government makes us safer, its rules always leave us less free:
The Food Police claim that they just want to help us make informed choices. But that’s not all they want to do. They want government to force us to make healthy choices.
The powerful assumption behind so much of government’s policy regarding food (and everything else) is that everything good should be encouraged by law and everything bad should be discouraged. Stated that way, it sounds like common sense. But… this is a formula for totalitarianism.
That totalitarianism extends to, as he puts it in one chapter title, making sure no one gets offended. About the government curtailing free speech in order to spare people’s feelings: “When getting offended gives people more power, people get offended more easily… We should never let government decide which ideas are worthy of protection and which are not.” As for being offended by Stossel himself, he’s fine with that: “If you disagree with me, argue with me. Shun me. And yes, even boycott me. Just don’t bring in government to settle the issue.”

When it comes to military spending in money pits like Afghanistan and Iraq, Stossel believes that “nation building is the worst form of planning,” and that rather than increasing or even maintaining a bloated military budget, “our soldiers are better served if we narrow their mission.”
Despite the range of issues covered in this book, and the wealth of examples, Stossel’s main point is very basic and simple. In his conclusion, aptly entitled “There Ought Not to Be a Law,” he sums up:

There is nothing that government can do that we cannot do better as free individuals – and as groups of individuals, working together voluntarily, not at the point of a gun or under threat of a fine.
Without big government, our possibilities are endless.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 4/23/12)