We live in an age where any problems that society encounters result in cries for government to do something. The idea is that government is this all powerful, all knowing and well intentioned organisation that is able and competent enough to take care of all our problems.
Not a day goes by where there is not a news report that concludes that government has to do something, or failed to do something, or ignored obvious signs requiring something to be done. Dependent on your political beliefs you will either be of the opinion that government should or shouldn't be doing certain things and there is a big divide in opinions.
Six Political Illusions, authored by political scientist James Payne, is a book that doesn't try to argue over whether government should or shouldn't be doing things. It is about shedding some light on illusions that exist across the political spectrum, surrounding actions that governments take. In this article I will provide a brief summary of the authors ideas to give you an outline of what to expect.
1) The Philanthropic Illusion
This is actually one of the most common misconceptions that people have about government. The idea is that it isn't a problem that government does certain things, because it is using its own money. Reality is though that every penny government spends has to be taxed out of the economy. Even when government borrows money to spend, it ultimately has to pay that money back by taxing the population.
Payne makes an excellent job of bringing this across, by focusing attention on the complexity of tax systems that make it almost impossible for and average person to comprehend the extent of taxation as well as how often and how much taxes are collected. In addition to this the author highlights how people generally only see the benefits of government spending, but never focus on the damage done by extracting the taxes in the first place. Essentially there is no source of money outside of the economy that governments can tap into.
Governments not only rob Peter to pay Paul, but very often rob Peter to pay Peter.
2) The Voluntary Illusion
In this chapter Payne demonstrates how people generally believe that government actions are implemented through co-operation, reasoned argument and compromise. Thus all government actions are brought about voluntarily through the political process.
The author debunks this idea by showing what happens to people that do not adhere to government decisions. Whether it is a new tax or a regulation imposed on a tiny sector of the economy, if you do not comply with government decisions, you will very quickly find yourself imprisoned.
The reason this is an important issue is that governments never want people to think of taxation in conjunction with force. Most people that understand the importance of force in government actions, usually believe in limiting government power.
3) The Illusion Of The Frictionless State
This chapter looks at the widely held belief that government can redistribute resources, i.e. take from one group and give to another, without wasting much of the resources in the process. Governments usually just show how much is spent on the revenue-collecting agency, but this completely ignores the cost to the economy of employing people to help comply with all the rules and codes.
This is actually a chapter I believe that could have been expanded upon a bit more. There are some good examples and studies provided, but I think that these could have been presented in a slightly more simplified way. The author goes into some studies that essentially show how much money is spent to comply with the tax code, but a lot of these numbers are so large that it is difficult to get the reader to understand the brevity of them. Breaking the cost of tax compliance down to maybe a small business example would have, in my opinion, demonstrated the issue a bit better.
Nevertheless, this chapter does raise the question very well, as to whether the state is necessarily the best instituation to redistribute resources. It also makes very good points to show that redistribution and the transfer of resources makes an economy poorer, not better off.
4) The Materialistic Illusion
This was probably one of my favourite chapters, as the author makes a very good point about the materialistic illusion. This illusion essentially is about the belief that when a policy has been decided on, all that is needed is enough money to make it successful.
This idea is so common that you rarely hear reports of failed government policies or services that do not coincide with reports of there simply not being enough money available to ensure success. It's always a lack of resources and not a lack of competence or management.
In addition to this the author explains how helping people by giving them money in return for no work can actually increasingly make things worse. If the impact of just giving money ultimately results in the recipient not only not improving his situation, but making it worse, then the more money you pore into this system the worse things get. It certainly does explain why so many countries around the world have failed to improve the lives of the poor despite ever expanding welfare states. Just because you give poor people money does not mean that you necessarily help their situations.
5) The Watchful Eye Illusion
According to Payne this illusion is all about the assumption that governments and politicians are always wiser and more responsible than the general public. Government has highly intelligent and qualified people that have resources available to make much better decisions than anyone else in society.
Essentially, the failings that happen to individuals in their decisions made are something that government employees and politicians are not as susceptible to. But government officials are made of the same stuff as the rest of us and just as likely to make bad decisions.
James Payne also makes a very good point in highlighting something that pretty much all politicians and government agencies do when justifying their actions. First they tend to exaggerate the problem, secondly they tend to exaggerate their success and lastly they exaggerate the cost of providing the service in the first place.
6) The Illusion Of Government Preeminence
This illusion is something that I had already hinted at in the introduction, where people essentially believe that there are problems in society that can and must only be solved by government. Mr Payne elaborates on this by raising the question of what the other ways are for a society to solve problems. The answer, according to him, is the sum of all actions of individuals and groups that work day in and day out to make life better through voluntary actions.
The reason people often simply believe that government is the best and only way to solve problems is that the sheer size of government is seen as a very positive factor in the problem solving process. On many occasions government actions actually cause very big problems for voluntary organisations like charities that are much more efficient and effective at helping a certain group of people. First of all government takes money away from possible donors to charities and secondly they compete for the same resources needed to provide a service.
While I understand that the author wanted to create a short and precise book that would attract many average readers, I do think that some of the ideas could have been hashed out with a bit detail on examples. I find that especially controversial ideas are best made convincing when more examples are provided.
Nevertheless, this is a great book that does indeed achieve to open the readers eyes to some very common misconceptions and sometimes indoctrinated beliefs. I have shared this book with all of my friends and it has led to some very interesting discussions, where even people at the extreme ends of the political spectrum have had to concede on many of the ideas.