I have strong opinions, but not about how to perform brain surgery, write a smart-phone app or produce a hip-hop album. Perhaps you have a strong view about one of these, but likely not all three.
None of us can simultaneously be a surgeon, software engineer and music producer. When it comes to work, we specialize in a few things and trade what we produce for goods and services that other specialists produce. We’re all better off.
We live most of our lives engaged in such exchanges. There is a great deal of specialized knowledge, with more produced every day. Individually, we possess or are aware of only a tiny fraction of that knowledge. It’s too hard or costly to acquire more. We just need to trade for its fruits.
Among specialists or other communities of interest, there is often robust debate. Surgeons learn, practice and disagree about merits of new ways to attack brain cancers. The rest of us don’t typically know which side to root for, so we just root for them to keep at it and go about our own business.
Consider what happens when goods and services are provided by government agencies and public employees rather than private companies and independent professionals. Suddenly, we all feel the need to express our expert opinions about the best ways to rehabilitate a prisoner, treat a mental illness, or teach a child to read — even though we can’t possibly possess expertise about so many different and challenging fields, and even those possessing such expertise may lack consensus.
The problem is that, unlike in the earlier cases, we can’t simply sit back and let the professionals fight it out. If we don’t like a new smart-phone app or hip hop album, we don’t have to buy it. If a particular brain surgeon or hospital seems to have poor results, we can go elsewhere.
What if we don’t like the outcomes produced by our prisons, public health agencies or public schools? It’s either impossible or highly expensive to “take our business elsewhere” by relocating ourselves and our tax dollars to another state. Instead, we seek to change the mix of professionals providing those services by casting ballots in the next election.
This is not nearly as effective an accountability mechanism. For one thing, we may be outvoted. Even if our preferred candidates win, they may not be in a position to swap out the personnel in question or overrule their professional judgments. Through it all, we end up doing the thing I’m suggesting we lack the capacity to do well — engaging in debate about matters we don’t and can’t fully understand.
There is no magic wand to wave here. Ensure more competitive elections? Great. Collect more data and encourage more experimentation and research? Sure. But the problem will remain in some form.
The best response is to minimize the extent to which people are compelled to receive services from professionals they don’t select. That argues for more choice and competition in education, health care and transportation, even when they’re substantially funded by governments. The next best thing is for governments to pay for measurable performance by public or private providers, rather than focusing on inputs or dictating procedures.
This argues for limiting the scope of the public sector and is one of the best arguments for limited government. It does you no harm if I have a wrong idea, do a foolish thing or hire an incompetent doctor. You can learn from my mistakes.
John Hood chairs the John Locke Foundation.