One of my favorite books is Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law.” Even though the book is very short, it took me weeks to read it because after almost every sentence I would have to stop and reflect. The book is simply that good. Bastiat writes “Socialists want to play God.” These five simple words might not appear to be very empowering, but for me they shed enormous light on many of the policies our government embraces.
Of course in America we are not socialists. That is, our economy is not centrally planned. However, many of our elected leaders do seem to want to “play God” either by redistributing wealth or moral values based on what they think is best for all of us. Almost every government program is an attempt to improve society via a redistribution of wealth or values. The leaders who advocate these programs are the farthest from stupid. After all, they are pursuing their best interests, building a platform for re-election, just like the rest of us pursue our own self interests, but I cannot see how the idea of a central planner on any scale is consistent with the very value our country exists to protect: liberty.
Leaders who are trying to “play God” have invoked paternalistic policies almost everywhere; sadly they largely go unnoticed. For example, Richard Thaler’s book Nudge, explains how suddle paternalism can be an effective way to improve people’s lives. The book cites an example where a public school dietician mandates that schools place apples in front of cake slices in their cafeterias so that students will have to reach over the apples to get a piece of cake. This policy effectively raises the cost (non-monetary) of getting a piece of cake while simultaneously lowering the cost of getting an apple. It should be no surprise that children ate more apples and less cake once this policy was enacted. It might appear as though the dietician knew what was best, designed an effective policy, and reduced childhood obesity along with all its ugly side effects.
Even though the kids in this school district might now be healthier, haven eaten more apples and less cake, I wonder how successful this policy truly is. What happens when a new study shows that cake is better than apples? Or we find that cake is more profitable than apples? Or a new school dietician orders the cake to be back in front of the apples? Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that these students will continue to eat more apples than cake once they leave the school. The policy does not encourage students to think for themselves. It does not make them better off in the long run. Ultimately, I do not think the policy brings about any real progress at all.
As badly as I want kids to choose apples over cake, I do not know what is in the best interest of each and every kid, and I do not assume the authority to dictate what is in their best interests not only because paternalism is incongruent with liberty but also because it is ineffective.
Paternalism often yields great short run benefits for an enormous long term cost- less liberty, which makes people less inclined to think for themselves. The more liberty in a society the more of an incentive men have to think for themselves, explore ideas, eliminate prejudices, seek the truth, truly become individuals, and maximize their self interests, which via the market process translates into a better life for us all. America has been built by good MEN, not those who claim to be good at “playing God.”
Today in the world of public policy, the stakes are high. We are accumulating an enormous national debt, watching our ever expanding government continue to grow, and engaging in more intense political discourse. As wildly optimistic as it might sound I think the solution lies in finding leaders that are not dedicated to their personal interests and a desire to “play God” but to a cause that is bigger than themselves, like liberty. When a leader is dedicated to a cause instead of himself, he has a much greater incentive to successfully promote that cause because more than his own ideas are at stake, instead his entire cause is at stake. President Lincoln had it right when he explained that elected leaders should appeal to voter’s reason and not their passion. Solving our political problems begins with setting our passions aside and examining how much we respect liberty, the very principle that got our country this far and the principle that will ensure our long term prosperity.