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October 26, 2012

A Mandate to Meddle?

We don’t know what’s best for others, and they don’t know what’s best for us. Why politicians—and everyone else—should mind their own business. By Russell Roberts.


A fan of liberty wrote to me of her struggle of being surrounded by people with a different worldview—people who make her feel that in defending liberty she is greedy, selfish, and uncaring. I wrote a novel on this issue (The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance), but here’s a shorter answer.

Are you greedy, selfish, and uncaring? A little. We all are. But I don’t think self-interest explains your view of the proper role of government intervention.

I’m not surprised that you worry about your motives. In our daily interactions, motives are nearly everything. I want friends and family members who care about me and whose motives count me in, alongside their own concerns. So people pay a lot of attention to motives because they’re important.

But the motives of strangers are much less important. For starters, by definition, it’s hard to know strangers as well as friends and family, so their motives will be much harder to read. Worse, strangers don’t have much information or knowledge of my needs, desires, and dreams. Strangers can’t know me well, so even with the best of motives, they may not be able to help me. In fact, they may end up hurting me despite their motives. Sometimes we hurt even our friends and family members because of our imperfect knowledge of who they are.

This suggests we should take a humble approach to intervening in the lives of strangers. Those on the other side of the spectrum of government intervention often lack this humility. They claim to know what is best for others: what they should eat, how they should behave in the bedroom, whether they should buy health insurance, and what is the best use of other people’s money. When these plans go awry, when they cause harm to those they would help, such people fall back on their motives. They meant well, after all.

But when dealing with strangers, with people outside our circle of friends and family, results trump motives. And sometimes, not always, it is better to leave things alone than to intervene. We know this is true in public policy just as it is true in parenting, where good intentions are paramount. Sometimes good parenting means letting children make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Sometimes it means letting children come to grips with responsibility.

So we teach our children to drive and let them take the car. We know it’s dangerous, but we accept the risk. We do so not because we don’t care about our children. Just the opposite: we accept the risk because we care about them. We respect them. We want them to leave the nest and learn to fly on their own.

So my opposition to a minimum wage or government schools or agricultural price supports or bank bailouts or mandatory health insurance or mandatory retirement contributions or mandatory eating habits doesn’t come from my selfishness or greed. Rather it comes from respect for my fellow human beings and a belief (not a faith) that leaving people free to choose what is best for themselves usually works out better than strangers making decisions for them.

The other day, a friend of mine was defending a regulation related to smoking. I hate smoking. I’ve never smoked in my life. But I think people should be free to smoke if they want and I believe that private establishments—restaurants, apartment buildings, and businesses—should be free to allow people to smoke on their premises. My friend doesn’t. He’s a great guy and he knows, as I do, that smoking has damaging health consequences. He feels very self-righteous about his quest to regulate smoking even more thoroughly than we currently do. Part of that self-righteousness comes from his motives. He knows they are pure, and they are. He is a fine person. I respect him. He also happens to be overweight.

I wonder how he would feel if I explained to him that I have been doing a lot of reading lately on diet and health and that I thought he should eat fewer carbohydrates and spend more time at the gym. I think it would be good for him. But no, I would never want to force him to change his habits, and more than that, my respect for him would keep me from even making the suggestion.

With a very close friend or a sibling, I might say something about the virtues of diet and exercise. But a stranger or casual acquaintance? I can’t imagine going up to a stranger on the street and lecturing him about his weight. Forcing a stranger to do something about his weight is even harder to picture. It’s not a question of my motives; it’s a question of respect and imperfect knowledge.

One of the points I made in The Invisible Heart is that we who want smaller government because we think it will make the world a better place are the allies, whether we like it or not, of purely selfish people who want smaller government to avoid taxes and have no intention of giving to charity. That should give us pause. At the same time, those who care so much about others that they would run their lives for them are allied with those who would run the lives of others because of less attractive motives: power and profit.

So don’t lose any sleep over your motives. And don’t let others who are no better than you are convince you that there is something wrong with you because you don’t want to use the power of the state to try to improve the lives of others. Their strategy has a very mixed track record. They are always saying that this time will be different. But it is unlikely to be different because of the knowledge problem and because the other side centralizes power. And centralized power doesn’t attract nice people. Quite the opposite.

Both sides want to make the world a better place. We just disagree on how to get there.


Russ Roberts is the John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He hosts EconTalk, a weekly award-winning podcast. His Keynes-Hayek rap videos (created with John Papola) have been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube. His blog is Cafe Hayek. His latest web-based project is The Numbers Game, on which he discusses data and charts using annotated videos.

Roberts is the author of The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity, The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance, and The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism. The Choice was named one of the top ten books of the year by Business Week and one of the best books of the year by the Financial Times.

Roberts has taught at George Mason University, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Rochester, Stanford University, and UCLA.


Adapted from Russell Roberts’s blog Cafe Hayek (www.cafehayek.com).