Counterpoint: A Pretense of Knowledge Undermines Trust in the Government

It’s no surprise that trust in the government is at an all-time low. Government failures and broken promises by administration officials in the last eight years alone have been plentiful.

Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, see: Point: Can You Trust the Government? Yes, With Greater Accountability

It’s no surprise that trust in the government is at an all-time low. Government failures and broken promises by administration officials in the last eight years alone have been plentiful.

Take the botched recovery after the Great Recession, for example. The Obama administration promised that if the government spent $800 billion in stimulus, unemployment wouldn’t rise above 8.8 percent. The plan was adopted, the spending was on its way, and yet the unemployment rate shot up above 10 percent and hovered at this painful level for months.

When the rate started to fall, it was months into the slowest recovery since World War II. It was also mostly because people gave up on looking for a job, and many of those lucky enough to have a job were still under-employed. Economic growth has been weak at 0.5 percent in the last quarter and 1.4 percent before that. That’s why 70 percent of Americans feel we are on the wrong track.

Then, there’s the utter failure of the launch of the Affordable Care Act’s federal exchange. After months of promising people that “if they liked their insurance plans and their doctors, they could keep both,” the American people awoke to a very different reality. The president was wrong; their insurance plans were canceled, and then they faced serious premium hikes to replace those plans.

It was made worse by the confession from one of the architects of the healthcare law, MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, that Obamacare was written in a “tortured way to make sure (the Congressional Budget Office) did not score the mandate as taxes.” The whole point, of course, was to mislead people about the law so it could be pushed down their throats — whether they wanted it or not.

Then came the Veteran Affairs scandal, exposing how the Department of Veterans Affairs was plagued with massive inefficiencies and mismanagement leading to the unforgivable deaths of veterans waiting for care after they came home from war.

These failures aren’t unique to the Obama administration. Every past administration has had its share of scandals, deceptions or epic government failures happening under their watch. Just since 2001, we’ve had: an intelligence breakdown that failed to prevent 9/11; a botched response to hurricane Katrina; the misleading claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that created the momentum for the war in Iraq; flu vaccine and cancer treatment shortages triggered by mismanagements at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the Federal Drug Administration; and so much more.

But these are just some of the big failures that come on top of the multitude of government programs that promise to: end poverty but don’t; support small businesses or exports but simply amount to picking winners and losers; or fix the underlying causes of the last financial crisis but just end up building a wall of protection around the traditional interest groups on Wall Street at the expense of small banks and consumers.

It doesn’t matter who is in office, more often than not, government will fail you. That’s because government is inherently incapable of performing certain tasks well, even if all of our most visible elected officials were smart, compassionate and well intentioned.

An unseen army of bureaucrats and administrative agencies are just as self-interested as the worst of the politicians that we elect, but they’re considerably less accountable. Honorable politicians who want to truly do the right thing would find themselves battling with the bureaucratic structures, which supposedly serve the public but in reality only serve themselves. This means that most government expansions are bound to fail from the start, despite who is in charge.

In his 1974 Nobel Prize lecture, economist F.A. Hayek warned his profession against the dangers of what he called “the pretense of knowledge.” He might as well have been addressing the army of well-intentioned lawmakers and bureaucrats who want to intervene in our life on a daily basis through new regulations and government programs. He urged economists and social scientists to maintain humility about the limits of their own knowledge and reject the impulse to bind themselves with the heady authority of “expertise” by experimenting with and controlling the populations that they believe need their guidance.

That pretense of knowledge applies to government, and it explains why it fails and why we shouldn’t trust it.