Thursday, October 03, 2013

The limited competence of public institutions

One thing that you learn from coaching or watching football is that not everyone can do everything well. Certain players can do certain things well that other players cannot do at all. The same applies to entire teams. You also learn that not everyone who does something well does so indefinitely. Players age, skills fade, and times change. Likewise, even though someone may do something very well there is always the possibility that someone will come along and do it better. These principles apply not only to sporting contests but in civic life. No one institution does everything better than the others. Institutions that do something well initially may get progressively worse at it as time goes on. Institutions may be so hampered by bureaucracy that they are unable to adapt to changing conditions, or they may assume responsibilities for which they are wholly unsuited.

These principles weigh against the progressive notion that the government should be relied upon for nearly all important endeavors. The fact is that there are some things that charities, and private enterprise do much better than public institutions. There are also things that public institutions may have initially done well that they have increasing difficulty doing competently. There are things that may best be done by government initially that private enterprise, or dedicated nonprofit organizations eventually do better.

The list of things that require public institutions because private or charitable institutions tried and failed is vanishingly short. There are of course some things which, on the whole, are proper objects of public enterprise; these include such things as law-enforcement, management of roads and thoroughfares, and providing fire protection services. Other areas in which public institutions to have a role, but which benefit from the participation of other entities include such things as managing hospitals and education. Scientific research likewise benefits from not being reliant on a single source of support, and undertakings such as space exploration are areas in which public institutions have been largely left behind.

The fallacy that, unless the government does something, it will not get done, or alternatively, that unless the government does something it will not be done well, is detrimental to both progress and to civic life in general. Governments and public institutions are inherently bureaucratic and hence inherently limited. There is no reason for a free and thriving society to inflict such limitations upon itself without good cause.

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