David R. Henderson  

Government Fundamentalists

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What do you call people who want government solutions even when those solutions don't work?

In my latest article in The Freeman, I introduce the term "government fundamentalists." Here's a passage:

What should we call people who seem to regard government as the solution regardless of the evidence? I propose the term "government fundamentalists."

I then identify Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank as a government fundamentalist, based on a column he wrote on the gasoline tax.

My ending:

Economist Jeff Hummel recently captured the essence of government fundamentalism this way: If markets don't work, have government intervene. If government intervention doesn't work, have government intervene further.
Notice the irony. Many free-market economists like me are quite willing to admit that markets don't work perfectly and to examine and accept government solutions if their advocates can show how governments can be motivated to actually carry them out. And yet we are called market fundamentalists. On the other hand, many people who call us that are unwilling to change any of their views about the efficacy of government intervention no matter how badly the intervention works. Who are the fundamentalists here?

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (24 to date)
RL writes:

Funny. I made this similar comment online last month in a debate with a physician who thinks we need more government involvement in healthcare:

"The failure of markets is evidence we need more government, and the failure of governments is evidence we need...more government."

Government fundamentalism is a common cultural belief these days. I see it extending far beyond Washington.

Matt writes:

I believe Bryan makes a very similar point in The Myth of the Rational Voter. In fact he uses the word "fundamentalist" (although he uses it for democracy the idea is the same).

david writes:

I think you were unfair to Thomas Frank; even if you support a complete privatization of roads, you surely do recognize that it is presently at best a fringe proposal, even among WSJ readers. It's even a stock suggestion used in fiction to identify someone as a wingnut (along with privatising the police force. Libertarians need better PR).

Are popular writers who ignore minor ideas now fundamentalists? I mean, really? I might support abandoning the Copenhagen interpretation in quantum physics, but I don't accuse popular writers of being fundamentalists if they only consider Copenhagen-based philosophical models and ignore my pet theory, even if I think my preferred theory resolves all the problems that popular writers like to breathlessly mention.

happyjuggler0 writes:

Worse still is when you find a government failure, but instead think of it as a "market failure".

The failure to establish, or allow, private property rights in "air" is entirely the fault of government. But when unwanted air pollution occurs, this is wrongly framed as "market failure", when of course the root cause is that there are no property owners who are allowed to protect their property from those who want to dump their "air trash" on it.

That is a clear government failure, but it is something that government fundamentalists wrongly attribute to "free markets".

I'll be joining the bandwagon of those who use, or at least try out, the phrase "government fundamentalism" from now on.

P.S. I don't know a practical way for government to establish private property rights for the air above an owner's property. This doesn't mean that the problem isn't government's establishment of an "air commons" though.

David R. Henderson writes:

Correct. Bryan makes the point about "democratic fundamentalism." Mine is more general.

Gary Rogers writes:

I would not be quite so willing to admit that markets do not work perfectly. When markets are said to fail, it is a usually a case of markets reacting properly, but not the way someone thinks they should react or a case of government intervention distorting the market. That is not the fault of the market. I would also point out that markets only allocate resources. They do not produce goods or generate wealth. Government intervention not only destroys the markets that makes wealth creation possible, it kills the incentives that generate the ideas and products of a thriving economy.

barghest writes:

I think that free market supporters are willing to bargain and be reasonable because they are loosing. Those who wish to increase the scope of government intervention in the economy do not need to carefully and reasonable make the case for why in a particular case government regulation is beneficial -- because they are winning.

Lord writes:

Another government is incompetent because there is no way of keeping the incompetent out of government, or we can make government incompetent by putting incompetents in charge, thereby proving it is incompetent argument? The latter I guess.

Troy Camplin writes:

I sometimes wonder if they are government fundamentalists or fanatics. In "The Middle Way," Lou Marinoff makes an excellent distinction between fanatics and fundamentalists that all too many people do not make. We typically refer to Osama bin Laden as an Islamic fundamentalist, which groups him in with various Chrstian fundamentalists such as Pat Robertson. However, "It is primarily religious (and also political) fanatics who cannot tolerate beliefs that differ from their own. Fanatics are dangerously and sometimes violently intolerant of others' beliefs, while fundamentalists are passionately wed to their own beliefs but normally pose no threat to others who believe differently" (63). Having been rasied around -- and as -- a Christian fundamentalist, I can attest to this difference. I heard my pastor and my family complain voiciferously and constantly about people doing this or that, or belieivng this or that. But the worst that any of them were ever going to do was sign a petition or vote for or against something. In the end, they were actually tolderant of the things they opposed, because they lived and let live. That did not mean, though, that they did not think they did not have the right to voice their opinions.

And this gets me to another point that needs to be made. Fanatics cannot stand for someone to disagree with them. Thus, they take action to silence their opposition thorugh various forms of intimidation. There are people out there who are free speech fanatics -- meaning, they think that they should have the right to say anything they want without anyone saying anything to or about them or their ideas. The attitude can be summed up thus:

Fanatic: "I believe that we should do X."
Opposition: "No, I think X is a bad idea."
Fanatic: "Opposition is infringing on my freedom of speech to say that we should do X!"

Pick your favorite cause and plug it into X, and you have probably heard someone make the above argument. It is not enough that they are free to say what they want, but others should not be free to criticize them for having said it. That is a form of fanaticism that in fact undermines the freedom of speech.

So fanaticism does not have to be theological in nature. But I do suspect that it is always religious in nature. Marinoff hints at this in the paragraph that ends the short section the above was excerpted from when he says, "Religious reform itself has now reached the other extreme [away from fundamentalism] in the West, whose societies -- from South America to North America to Europe -- hve become so liberalized that millions now have no religious faith whatsoever. This leaves them extremely vulnerable to moral anarchy on the one hand, and to political crusades on the other" (63). In other words, it has led to post-hippy, postmodern anarchy and libertinage -- or to various forms of secular-government religions such as national socialism, fascism, and communism. For many government is now their god. We saw this particularly strongly among the existentialists who, upon embracing atheism, became supporters of Naziism (Heidegger was a lifelong member and never recanted his membership in the party) and communism (Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre were all communists, at least for a while). Nietzsche warned against this, pointing out that people did not truly embrace atheism and all that it truly meant, but that they continued to act as good Christians or Jews, only transfering their loyalties to other entities.

What we seem to see now in the United States is a combination of moral anarchy and devotion to government as god among a certain element of the Left. There are people who don't want anyone to judge them for anything they do, but at the same time support the creation of an extremely large, controlling government. They seek to cut all natural social bonds, eliminate all natural social hierarchies, and support the government as the one, true and only social organizer. It's a very unnatural top-down yet egalitarian system. But it is a system conceived of by people who, to paraphrase Nietzsche, cannot conceive of a being greater than themselves. They naturally imagine themselves in charge of the very entity they worship.

WIth a natural set of social systems, we see decentralization and moderation at work. People join various social systems -- churches, neighborhoods, jobs, clubs, etc. -- and there is a natural hierarchy that forms. There is me, and I am in a family, and my family and I are in a neighborhood and go to a church, and each of those are imbeded in a hierarchical organization themselves: the community is in a town, in a county (two in the case of my town) in a state in a nation in a larger culture (the West) in a globalized world; the church is a member of a diocese, etc. As a member of diffferent groups, I am forced to get along with different people. There are people of different ethnic groups in my neighborhood and in my church (and in my family, actually), etc. I am friends with people of different religions and ethnicities due to the different organizations I have been a member of, or because of the places I hang out at. All of which contributes to moderate behavior (it's hard to hate people you know very well, after all). We live moderate lives by acting as we naturally act -- as social mammals -- while struggling against the unfortunate side-effect of evolving as a social mammal, which is hatred of those not in our tribe. We do this not by eliminating social behavior, but by expanding our notion of who is in our tribe. But all of this undermines government-fanaticism, and that is why anti-social efforts have been underway of late: anti-touching rules and even laws, etc. are becoming popular of late. It is part of a kind of fanaticism we have to fight against just as much as we fight against religious fanaticism.

But we have to remember: fanaticism and fundamentalism are not one and the same thing. We have to know that if we are going to fight effectively against fanaticism and make the world safe for moderation.

Unit writes:

I've proposed the term "legislative bias", to mean the common propensity to seek salvation in new laws.

Randy writes:

I like it. It accurately describes the phenomenon. But the real question is why does the phenomenon exist, and I think the answer is propaganda. We hand our children over to the progressives (pardon, government fundamentalists) who spend the next 12 years or more teaching them that government is their salvation. What other outcome could we possibly expect?

Mike Moffatt writes:

"We hand our children over to the progressives (pardon, government fundamentalists) who spend the next 12 years or more teaching them that government is their salvation."

If teachers working at government institutions are all 'government fundamentalists', then how do you explain the views of Prof. Henderson or the hundreds of other economists with similar views working for government or quasi-government institutions?

Kurbla writes:

Many interesting discussions. Some people do not like market, just like you do not like state. But there are very very few fundamentalists in that sense, even Lenin was pragmatic.

mikey writes:

The reason that progressives disregard the continuing underperformance of government solutions is entirely rational from what they are actually seeking to accomplish. They are seeking to be publicly identified with a higher moral position. i.e. "The idealized brotherhood of man." How else to explain the United Nations? Al Gore? Political Hollywood?

Their point is not resolution but absolution by public signaling.

Troy Camplin writes:

The term "pragmatic" means, "What works." If we mean it in the sense of what works in the real work of actual things (as it means in the original Greek), then few people in government are pragmatic, Lenin least of all. However, if what we mean by "pragmatic" is "what works to keep me in power," then Lenin was pragmatic par excellence. This is the way most politicians mean it when they describe themselves as pragmatists. However, it is those who understand catallaxy as a self-organizing system that requires certain rules to work, and which produces peace and wealth for everyone who are pragmatic in the first sense.

Tom West writes:

When markets are said to fail, it is a usually a case of markets reacting properly, but not the way someone thinks they should react

I'd be very careful with that. The 'correct' reaction of the markets could be, in extremis, to let large numbers of people or communities die.

Since the market is seen as a tool of the people rather than the people as a tool of the market, the correct functioning of the market could easily lead to its demise.

Far better to acknowledge occasional market failure and accept 'corrective' action than help persuade people the whole market thing should be chucked out.

Or as I overheard in one debate: Bacteria, like markets, are necessary. But we nobody is going around saying that we shouldn't stop the Black Plague, even though its just bacteria working like they're supposed to.

David C writes:

I fail to see how privately-owned toll roads everywhere would be an improvement over the status quo. The inherent advantage of the free market stems from competition, but how can you have competition in a road system? For most people, there's only going to be one road outside their house that they can use, and only one major highway that leads to their workplace. The only way to introduce competition is to greatly increase the number of roads being built, particularly for rural areas. When you combine that with all the toll booths that would have to be built, I can't see how you're going to receive the cost reductions necessary from free market competition to justify the added infrastructure.

If you can't get that free market competition, then why not use gasoline taxes to pay for roads? That way, people are paying for the amount they use. If people respond by driving smaller cars to increase their mileage, that's good because smaller cars reduce the wear and tear on the roads. It's certainly better than using income taxes to pay for roads or building expensive toll booths to pay for roads.

The reason minor forays into public transportation have failed is the same reason that minor forays into hydrogen cars or ethanol-fuel have failed. You're talking about changing the system of transportation people are using in their daily lives. There's a minimum amount of adoption that has to occur in order for a system to be successful. Changing from private to public would be as expensive as the change from public to private that occurred in the 40's and 50's. And the first half of the 20th century is an example of public transportation working just fine.

Government fundamentalism probably does exist, but certainly you can find a better example than people advocating public transportation (which has worked in the past) and gasoline taxes. Protectionism maybe?

William Newman writes:

How about some word other than "fundamentalist"? I was under the impression that fundamentalism refers to a tendency to refer back to fixed basics, typically the holy book or other early writings of Christianity or Islam. There are plenty of other nouns for religious extremists, like "zealot" or "fanatic", that don't have this connotation, and this connotation doesn't seem to fit most of the collectivist folk.

There are also adjectives like "dogmatic" that don't seem to connote any particular written authority the dogma, so they would seem to fit for dogma like "there is one god, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and benign" or "human irrationality corrupts the decisions made by individuals in markets, not the decisions made by regulators."

(Maybe "fundamentalist" would fit for some kinds of Marxists.)

Jacob Oost writes:

I like it. I'm going to use it.

Al Fin writes:

Government fundamentalist is a bit understated. I prefer "government terrorist". A few people may consider that I go too far, but it may be that they are not paying close attention.

fundamentalist writes:

Calling irrational people fundamentalists is nothing but encouraging the ignorance of journalists. The term "fundamentalist" was chosen by theologians in the early 20th century who insisted that certain truths had to be accepted in order to call oneself a Christian. Those truths were the fundamentals of Christianity. Then in the 1970's some ignorant journalists started calling Islamic terrorists "fundamentalists" in order to associate religious people in the US with them. By using the term to refer to irrational people, you encourage such journalistic sloppiness and dishonesty. I realize our language is a living one and changes over time, but do we really want to encourage such dishonesty?

I call myself "Fundamentalist" because I believe in the fundamentals of a free market economy, the fundamentals of Christianity as delineated by the Reformers, fundamental investing, and emphasizing the fundamentals of blocking and tackling in football.

fundamentalist writes:

PS, Socialists have been calling libertarians free market fundamentalists for many years, which is another reason I chose the title.

El Presidente writes:


Many free-market economists like me are quite willing to admit that markets don't work perfectly and to examine and accept government solutions if their advocates can show how governments can be motivated to actually carry them out.

Though I can't claim to know your whole body of work, I haven't seen an instance in which you have actually supported a government solution. Name one such solution, if you would be so kind.

Troy Camplin writes:

"Free market fundamentalist" makes as much sense as "germ theory fundamentalist" or ""gravity fundamentalist" or "quantum physics fundamentalist." How can you be a fundamentalist in supporting a naturally occurring system? Supporting the free market is like supporting the existence of oxygen for complex life on earth. One cannot be a free market fundamentalist, as free markets are not an ideology, but a physical reality brought about by the interactions of free individuals. Insofar as government is based on ideology, one can be a government fundamentalist. I think too many are government fanatics, though.

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