The mainstream media misunderstands the role of the federal government as outlined in the US Constitution. They routinely ask questions to the libertarian leaning Republican candidates (Ron Paul, Gary Johnson) that betray this ignorance. For example, of the seven questions MSNBC asked Ron Paul at the last debate (Sept 7, 2011) four of them focused on this.
The questions presuppose that we need the federal government to provide a cornucopia of services that (mistakenly believed) the private sector could not provide. The underlying accusation in these questions is that if you don’t think the government should do these things then you must think no one should do these things and you are clearly a heartless SOB. To highlight the lack of imagination the questioner (Brian Williams) actually suggested that if the government did not run air traffic control then the only alternative would be that pilots would be doing it themselves in their planes! If he had employed a little investigative journalism he would have easily discovered that Canada actually privatized their air traffic control system in 1996 and has consistently received higher marks than the antiquated government run US system.
In short, the answer to this question is that just because one doesn’t believe the government should be providing a particular service doesn’t mean it should not be done. There is NOTHING that the government does that the private sector can’t do better. Not because somehow the individuals in the private sector are somehow magically smarter and better people. Rather because the private sector is constantly receiving feedback through the profit/loss system. Companies that provide things their customers want receive money and stay in business, companies that don’t lose money and go out of business. What remains are those companies best suited to provide the service. Government has no such feedback; failure is simply an excuse to ask for more money since obviously the failure was entirely due to a lack of money.
For those that believe “some things are just too important to let the private sector run them” and that therefore government must run them, then ask yourselves this: Why doesn’t the government nationalize our food industry? Why aren’t all farms and food processing and distribution government run? Why isn’t food allocated “equally” to local government grocery stores with “fair” prices? Surely food, that product without which we would all die, is important enough that we couldn’t possibly trust the market to handle it? Yes, government does stick its nose into agriculture quite a bit but certainly nothing on the scale of a nationalized government run monopoly of food distribution. Yet somehow the market, with no central planner, is able to magically make food available to everyone in this country. So if we allow the market to handle food (the most important of all goods), why then are we not willing to allow the market to handle other goods, such as education? Retirement? Air traffic control? Health insurance? Product regulations?
But what about drug safety, surely we need the government to handle this? No, we don’t need a monopoly on drug safety. We need several “FDAs” competing with each other. Those that do a good job evaluating drug safety and efficacy will stay in business, and the ones that do a poor job (like the FDA that approved drugs that killed people, but for which they have no accountability) would go out of business. How would this work? We already have an existing model: Underwriters Laboratory. UL is a private organization that is not affiliated with any government. The UL inspired private regulation model is simple and works with any product or service. Here’s how:
Companies sell products. The products might cause harm so companies buy insurance. Insurance companies want to ensure against losses so they require companies be certified by a private certifying agency. If the certifying agency does a good job (preventing damaging products) they make money. The insurer is happy because they aren’t paying out claims. The company is happy because they aren’t getting sued. If the certifying agency does a poor job (allowing damaging products to be sold) then the insurer has to pay claims and the company is sued. That agency goes out of business because no one wants to use them anymore. The good agencies remain, the bad ones go away. It is a positive feedback loop of ever improving self-imposed regulations.
What about national disaster relief? Even easier – ever hear of the Red Cross? I think Ron Paul said it best – “What happened before 1979? We didn’t have FEMA.” Before 1979 did people just lay down and die because there was no federal aid? No, organizations like the Red Cross provided assistance as well as local groups that know their areas much better than the feds. FEMA has created a moral hazard that provides an incentive for people to not take responsibility for themselves (i.e. not buying flood insurance, building fancy homes on hurricane prone beaches, etc.). Private organizations like the Red Cross have a vested interest in seeing their efforts only go toward those that truly need help as they must answer to their donators. Donators don’t want to see their money wasted or swindled away as has happened with FEMA. Unhappy donators = no donations. FEMA answers to no one (or rather it answers only to a bloated government bureaucracy that can’t keep track of the waste, fraud and abuse).
We who believe in liberty of the individual are sympathetic towards our fellow man. We recognize the need for oversight of goods and services. We simply do not accept the proposition that government is the only way to provide such relief or oversight. We think it is the least efficient way to do so. The private market is more efficient due to inherent incentives that provide continuous positive feedback.