Conservatives and Libertarians Have A Rhetoric Problem

Conservatives and libertarians have a rhetoric problem. Their opposition to government involvement in sectors of the economy or spheres of social life is often based on the statement, “generally speaking, people make better decisions for themselves than can a bureaucrat in Washington.”

This is both an unhelpful way to frame the debate over the role of government and a line of arguing that is disconnected from the only logically viable basis for limiting its size and scope.

First, the framing error. I doubt we’ll ever be able to quantify the total number of good decisions made by government, bad decisions made by individuals, good decisions made for individuals by government, etc. But there are enough examples to support almost any position one cares to take on the subject, so pursuing the conversation on this plane allows it to quickly descend into nothing more than weaponized anecdote-ization.

Second, the logical error (which is in part connected to the framing one): the rule-utilitarian style argument that focuses on the aggregate quality of the decisions in question ignores the underlying reason to oppose or support government involvement in a given area. The proper claim to make is that, regardless of the quality of the private decisions in question, the decisions themselves aren’t ones the government should have a role in making. Probably we would all be healthier people if the government banned unhealthy food and forced everyone to exercise thirty minutes per day in order to qualify for Social Security. But I don’t think those are the kinds of decisions we want government making, even if it means we’d all look better in bathing suits.