Wednesday, April 14, 2004

CHARLES MURRAY PRETENDS NOT TO UNDERSTAND WHAT GOVERNMENT DOES


Charles Murray, author of one of the worst racist screeds since Mein Kempf, leads us on a thought experiement on the utility of government in this morning's NYT.

His logic is as contorted and misleading as any Platonic dialogue.

Murray asks, what if rational utility-maximizing taxpayers--as consumers of public goods--could shop from a menu of government services with their tax dollars? (In order to proceed in this dialectic, we need to ignore for a moment the fact that many consumers of government services do not pay taxes--particularly the young, the old, and the feeble--and many regular taxpayers have no voice in government--resident aliens).

He admits there is great public support for core government services that provide public goods (defense, fire departments, environmental protection, roads, etc.), which otherwise would not be provided in government's absence. And he contends, correctly, that given the choice "ordinary people, making sensible judgments...would put large segments of local, state and federal government out of business."

This is precisely the point of government. Government is a response to the failure of micro-incentives to individuals to yield desirable outcomes in macro-behavior. We need government because individuals cannot on their own make all the decisions (and do not individually command sufficient resources) to produce all that is needed for society to function. We need someone and something with the vantage to coordinate all the various activities and needs associate with producing public goods and services. Moreover, most people don't want to be burdened with these choices (hell, we can barely get people to vote every four years), which is why we have a professional government.

Could government resources be better allocated? Almost certainly. Murray derides government task forces on things like "diversity" (no surprise there). Others may lambast the corrupt government relations of the petro-military-industrial complex and ginormous transfers of wealth from working people to those making more than $300k a year.

How do we decide which government programs are truly worthy of our tax dollars? Murray suggests that government agencies should engage in marketing their utility to taxpayer-consumers, who would then be persuaded to vote for these hitherto obscure agencies with their tax dollars. This is, of course, patently absurd. It is plain to see why we would not want the majority of government offices to be engaged in active marketing (witness the HHS/Bush campaign television ads on the Medicare reform abomination).

Anyone who has walked down the aisles at Wal-Mart knows that consumers are perplexed enough with choice of a few dozen brands of shampoo, let alone the inumerable services provided by government in all its forms. Take away the packaging and the marketing glitz, and all the shampoo bottles contain essentially the same ingredients, and do essentially the same thing: clean your hair. Invariably, many, many, many people are going to reach for the unadvertised generic store brands.

A psychologist, like Murray, should know better than this. But alas, Murray, time and again, has shown he will travel to great lengths of intellectual dishonesty in order to advance his acrid social agenda.

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