How Do We Decide Who We Can Trust?

Writing for the AEIR, Art Carden has an excellent article entitled “Government is Not a Wise Steward.” In the article, Art is discussing differing ways to use tax dollars. Art writes:

Given its track record, it’s not at all clear to me that the U.S. government — or my state, county, or local government — would be a wise steward of any money I feel like I don’t need. You know those bumper stickers that say something like “It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the army has to hold a bake sale to buy a tank,” or something like that? I’m not sure I want more of my money going to an entity that spends so much on tanks and bombs.

Should they [government] give it [tax dollars] to charity? Maybe. Even then, the decision isn’t quite as clear-cut. There are a lot of nonprofits that seem to exist strictly to raise funds, not to actually solve any problems, as Tyler Cowen points out in his book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero (which I discuss here). Even if we address the possibility that we end up joining a scam like the Bluth Foundation’s battle against TBA, Yoram Barzel famously argued that it is very difficult to give away money in a way that benefits the people we are trying to help. Even for the devoted humanitarian with resources like GiveWell at her disposal, “Give your money to charity” wouldn’t obviously deliver maximal bang for one’s benevolent buck.

The issue of which charity to give to, whether it be private or public money, is always tricky. The point of charity is to do good, and ideally you want your dollars going to purify water in Africa or protect the Icelandic puffins rather than pay someone’s salary in the US. But how do we get that sort of information? How do we get the knowledge needed to know who we can trust, whether it be to save the whales or sell us our dinner? After all, it is not from the benevolence of the brewer, baker, and butcher that we get our dinner.

Interestingly enough, that knowledge is gained through the competition process. Suppliers do not compete with other suppliers on price alone (same with buyers against other buyers). One of the things that they compete on is trust: You trust that the supermarket will sell you non-contaminated food. You trust the bank will not steal your money. You trust that the burger you get from Five Guys in Colorado will be just as good as the one you get in Maryland. As Hayek wrote in The Meaning on Competition, part of the competitive process is to teach us who will best serve us.

Thus, with government as steward, without a robust competitive process, there is no way to generate that kind of knowledge. And with government, it is hardly competitive. In other words, government is unlikely to be a good steward with funds (opting, say, for health care or education over bombs) because it lacks the very ability to get that form of local knowledge needed to know who the best recipients of funds should be.

Of course, the private sector competition is not perfect. As Art points out, there are a lot of difficulties in determining charities. But we only have the information that some charities are relatively better than others because of that competition.

If government were to be a good steward, it would need certain kinds of information, but that information is only available locally and through competition.