Another Government Failure

One of the central issues for small government people, such as classical liberals, libertarians, and many conservatives, is government failure.  While the standard arguments for big government purport to identify market failures that justify government intervention, small government people emphasize government failure.  For small government people, the government regularly engages in activities that constitute government failure.  The government program does bad things, causing harmful results or producing beneficial results, but at excessive costs.

Ordinary Democratic voters and many Republican voters see government agencies as basically doing a good job.  When they see the FDA, many people simply picture an agency that protects us from unsafe and ineffective drugs.  Many other people, while more skeptical, still see the FDA as basically doing good, even if at times it makes mistakes or pursues inappropriate policies.  It is the rare person who sees the FDA as fundamentally misconceived, as requiring a radical restructuring where it has far less coercive power and is much more of a certifier than a regulator.  

Part of the reason why more people don’t see the extent of the government failure is that they simply are not knowledgable about the mistakes that the government has made and is making.  One of most visible mistakes, becoming clearer every year, is the food pyramid introduced by the government in 1992, which recommended a low fat, high carb diet: “6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta occupied the large base of the pyramid; followed by 3 to 5 servings of vegetables; then fruits (2 to 4); then milk, yogurt and cheese (2 to 3); followed by meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts (2 to 3); and finally fats, oils and sweets in the small apex (to be used sparingly).”

This information is increasingly seen as being erroneous.  The government and its experts may very well have caused many millions of people in the US to develop diabetes, heart disease, and other serious maladies.  Even the New York Times has now run a story on a “major new study” which shows that “people who avoid carbohydrates and eat more fat, even saturated fat, lose more body fat and have fewer cardiovascular risks than people who follow the low-fat diet that health authorities have favored for decades.”

The question is whether the government will come clean on its mistake.  Will it admit its error, say its sorry, and come up with new recommendations?  I am not betting on it.  Admitting its mistake would emphasize that it made a mistake.  Instead, my guess is that one day it will update its food pyramid, simply claiming that new science has displaced the old science, without taking any responsibility for the harm it caused.

Reader Discussion

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on September 02, 2014 at 11:48:37 am

It would take an encyclopedia to cover the mistakes of government, the mountains of regulations, the constant additions, above all the thoughtless, no penalty, ignore the negative results, attitude of the untouchable bureaucracy.
And people want more of this?
Great post.

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john trainor
on September 02, 2014 at 16:09:35 pm

The Food Pyramid was issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the FDA, and it was, fortunately, only advisory, not compulsory.

That said, these official eating recommendations still have an air of authority and objectivity about them -- they seem simply true to the simple citizen. And in this way, the USDA illustrates a *political* problem about administrative agencies that has become typical since administrative rule began with the New Deal. The Department of Agriculture has become "captured" by the private parties it purports to regulate (i.e., govern). And it's usually the biggest (or biggest coalition) among these private interests, cementing the union of Big Business and Big Government, which small government advocates should abhor. Google the names of any USDA officials (see http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=usda_bios.html) and, upon reading a biography other than their official one, notice how many of them have ties to Big Ag. and the law firms and lobbyists that shill for them. Conversely, notice how the major executives and boards of ADM, Tyson, ConAgra, Monsanto, have in their biographies tenure in some high-ranking office in the agency.

Back to the Food Pyramid. It illustrates a signal failure of administrative government and a fatal fault in its dogma. Purporting to be objective, impartial science (and, as such, entitled to rule us), the predominance of grain in this supposed health key is highly questionable in light of American obesity as correlated with insulin resistance and carbohydrate consumption -- especially of mass-produced, corn syrup- and preservative-laded grains. And who just happens to mass-produce and mass-profit (in the market and by federal subsidies) from wheat, corn, and cereals? Thus the illusion of simple, objective, nonpartisan expertise in the public interest hides a dubious claim that officially promotes some private interests at the expense of others (those private interests including USDA officials) -- all while hoodwinking citizens into believing that the government knows how to eat. Well, big government certainly knows how to *feast*.

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on September 02, 2014 at 22:59:00 pm


Government is **not** a person. Government does not do things. Government is a mechanism. For a long period of time the functions of that mechanism here were constitutionally delineated.

PEOPLE do things. People attempt to use the mechanisms of government to do things.

A mechanism – an engine – is said to "fail." Failure occurs from the use of wrong fuels; from lack of adequate coolant; from lack of proper lubrication; from overload; and most often from attempts to apply it beyond its designed capacities. It can occur from improper design; but when has that been identified and ascertained for our government? The engine does not fail the people using it fail.

The tendency to adopt the journalistic shorthand of reifying and personifying the mechanism of government should be avoided if the objective is to understand the sources of economic and social malfunctions. `

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R Richard Schweitzer
on September 03, 2014 at 12:03:17 pm

At the risk of overdoing, here, from AskBlog 3/10/2014:

Proponent (Kling, I think):

Government doesn't fail at everything.

1. It does a pretty good job at police work and self-defense.

2. It fails when it intervenes in the marketplace to achieve political ends. It has failed at education, the war on drugs, the war on poverty and its efforts to reduce inequality.

3. The Fed, a quasi-governmental organization has failed miserably at achieving any kind of financial stability. [numbers and emphasis added]

RRS response

Your examples demonstrate that it is not "government" that fails, but it is the USES of the mechanisms of governments that fail.

In example 1, mutual defense and police powers are among the designated functions of governments under most constitutions (whether or not written).

In example 2, we are observing efforts to attain sociological or economic objectives by political means (rather than attaining political objectives). Here, again, are failures in the attempts to use the mechanisms of government for functions which are outside the purview of the constitutional structure of those mechanisms.

In example 3, the attempted expansion of the functions of a financial instrumentality, originally established to supplement the liquidity deficiencies of the banking system (and thereby preserve the banking system) to broader economic objectives, again determined by political means has resulted in failures.

What has appeared, in order to deal with the limitations of the mechanisms of a constitutionally determined government, is the organization and popular acceptance of the Authority of an Administrative State, through which, by political means, particular interests seek to attain sociological, economic and ideological objectives. In doing so the Administrative State utilizes the instrumentalities of the mechanisms of the constitutionally determined government.

The failures most often arise by reason of the conflicts amongst particular interests, which cannot be resolved in the uses made of the limited functions of the mechanisms of government without seriously impairing those mechanisms.

We are already experiencing serious fiscal impairments of the mechanisms of government and deterioration in the uses of political means for the determination of objectives of the Administrative State.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on September 03, 2014 at 14:28:34 pm

Fine. You stack up all the bodies that have amassed from people relying on the Food Pyramid to their detriment. Feel free to enlist the aid of all the people libertarians have rescued from this fate.

And I'll stack up all the bodies that have amassed from people listening to cigarette companies. And I'll enlist the aid of all the people who were saved by the Surgeon General's warnings about the lies being told by the cigarette companies.

And when we're both done, let's have a nice chat about the horrible burdens of government failure and the utopia of libertarianism....

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Image of nobody.really
on September 04, 2014 at 11:52:48 am

To bastardize a popular phrase:

Even a blind guvmint can find an acorn sometime! - although most of the time it runs around in circles causing all kinds of mayhem in the garden!

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.