Government's Extrapolation Problem

The always wise Tom Schaller raises a very important question in a column about government and the private sector: why do we blame "government" when government does things wrong, but we never blame "markets" or "capitalism" when they screw up? When you wait for three hours at the DMV to get your license renewed, there's a fair chance you'll walk away perturbed at government, and at those government bureaucrats who weren't as speedy or helpful as they could have been. But when you wait three hours for the cable guy to show up and he never does, you never say, "Damn you, markets!" So why not?

Tom doesn't actually answer this question in his column, so I'll hazard a guess. Translating that particular experience into a larger complaint about a system requires a certain kind of mindset. You have to be trained to make the connection. For instance, as someone who has written dozens of articles in support of government-provided health insurance, I am in that mindset when I deal with my insurance company. So when they provide inefficient, overpriced service topped off with a cherry of poor customer relations—as they so often do—I'm ready to see the problem not just as that one company, but at the entire system of private health coverage. But I'm unusual in that way.

Now, when it comes to the DMV or whatever other level of government an average person might happen to get frustrated by, you don't have to be a political blogger to make the connection to a larger complaint about government. That's because there's an entire political party, supported by a large and influential media apparatus, devoted almost entirely to repeating to you, a thousand times a day, that government is an inefficient, uncaring, rapacious beast whose existence is devoted to taking your money and depriving you of your freedom. It doesn't take any kind of thoughtful deliberation or specialized knowledge or imagination to connect the DMV to "government." Every single one of us has heard the connection made a million times. The connection is already there, embedded in our brains. We can't forget it.

On the other hand, while Republicans may characterize Democrats as a bunch of socialists, try to imagine what it would be like if Democrats actually were making a socialist critique of "markets" with the frequency and vehemence with which Republicans criticize "government." What if literally nearly every time a Democrat gave a speech, you could be sure there would be a horror story about someone who got screwed by an airline or a cable company, and the politician would then say that the problem is markets, because markets exist to screw people.

It's almost impossible to imagine, not just because nobody talks that way, but because liberals don't actually believe that. They believe that markets are wonderful much of the time, but they also fail sometimes, and it's government's job to step in when the market fails. Liberals may criticize oil companies or insurance companies, but they almost never criticize markets in the abstract. This imbalance in rhetoric—constant, unending denunciations of government, with virtually no denunciations of markets—mostly explains the fact that people make the connection in one area but not in the other.

There's another element too: many of the best things government does for us are invisible, or at least taken for granted. Yes, we have idiots who shout, "Tell government to take its hands off my Medicare!" But even putting them aside, we go through our day benefiting from government without noticing it at all. When you bite into a hamburger and don't end up dying of food poisoning, you don't say, "Hey, I'm still alive—thanks, federal food safety inspectors!" Your water is safe to drink thanks to government, but few people think about that. You might get annoyed if the streets in your neighborhood are covered in potholes, but if the streets are smooth—if the government does its job—you don't notice them. On the other hand, when the private sector does its job well, whether it's because the hamburger was really tasty or because your new smartphone is totally awesome, you notice it and know that a private company did a good job.

Comments

First, let me say i've been pointing out this disconcerting contrast for about a decade now (mostly to little effect) and I'm very happy to see it being discussed in a wider forum such as this. So, thanks for the article.
I believe your analysis to be quite accurate. Clearly the lack of criticism by either major party of the "free" market precipitates this situation. I would, however, suggest another important reason for it: namely, the general and correct perception of the differing roles of government and businesses. We all feel that government is there to benefit and serve, even if we drastically disagree on the definition of "benefit and serve". Whereas, we all know that companies are out to profit (i.e. serve themselves/shareholders). So, when government fails to serve adequately, we see it as a grave shortcoming; we do not hold businesses to the same standard. In effect, we expect business to screw us to a certain extent. So, when they do, we don't really hold it against them.
Although a little simplistic, I think this reasoning holds water, but it leads to a far more interesting question in my mind: why does a large part of our population seem intent on dismantling that which serves us and empowering that which screws us? I really can't come up with a satisfactory answer to that one.

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