Why people distrust government

Jeffrey Friedman’s answer:

In principle, people might have responded to accumulating perceptions of government failure by dialing back their expectations of government performance. But in practice, this would have violated the tacit assumption that justifies government’s attempt to solve social and economic problems to begin with: the assumption that modern society is so simple that the solutions to its problems are self-evident.

In the earlier essay, Friedman coined the phrase “epistemological utopianism.” I think we need to come up with a catchier phrase to describe the belief that modern society’s problems are easily solved by people with the right motives. I nominate “oversimplification bias,” but I welcome other suggestions. Provisionally, let me work with that term.

1. Friedman’s thesis is that oversimplification bias leads people to expect government to solve problems that it cannot solve. When the problems persist, distrust in government rises.

2. This leads people to hate those with whom they disagree. After all, if you believe that your side has the solutions, then you must assume that the other side does not want to solve the problems.

3. It also leads people to be arrogant about their own side. If the problems are simple, then our solutions must be correct, and that makes us really superior. (Note: an anti-Bobo Trump supporter can be just as arrogant in this sense as a Bobo elitist.)

4. I am afraid that mainstream economists are often afflicted with oversimplification bias. Reducing the problems of patterns of sustainable specialization and trade to monetary policy. Seeing health care policy in terms of mathematical and statistical models, ignoring all of the cultural baggage that we inherit. etc.

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24 Responses to Why people distrust government

  1. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Nice post. I am reminded of a few discussions broadly similar.

    One is this, with Nathan Glazer, looking back.


    Two, this comes up in Godfrey Hodgson’s biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

    = – = – = – =

    As I recall, there was briefly a notion that first you identify the problem, next you create a government funded policy or program to solve the problem. Obviously this is naive. Idealists who served in federal government working on such problems in the 1960s quickly became less optimistic.

  2. Larry Phillips says:

    I suggest Shangri-La bias.

  3. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Let’s work on an X + Y + Z = P (Polarization and Mutual Contempt).

    Oversimplification Bias + Intention Heuristic + ______________ = MCP (Mutually Contemptuous Polarization).

    Z, which I don’t recall the name for offhand, is the mental habit of thinking that we know our own motives and they are basically good and pure, while our opponents are selfish greedy bastards and either won’t admit it or don’t even know it.

    OB + IH + _____ = MCP

    shake and stir…

  4. R Richard Schweitzer says:

    Not included in those calculations is the misconception (or wishful perception) of “government” as a sentient, reasoning being; or as the “singular” effects of collective, objective human conduct, rather than as a social instrumentality (or mechanism) in which the inter-relationships of the humans operating the “mechanism”, with their own objectives and motivations, become the principal determinant of the results of that social facility.

    • Yep, you can call this *general will* bias.

      In fact I think Rousseau is in an important way the most important thinker of the Enlightenment. Not because of his influence, but because his writings reflects in explicit from many of the hazy conceptions that people have.

      Indeed many people can read Rousseau and see how hopelessly the muddled the concept of the general will is, but then in practical politics they turn right around and start ask what “we should do about XYZ problem”.

  5. B.B. says:

    What would Richard Thaler say about all this?

    I am reminded of the Harvard sociologist Edward Banfield who wrote “The Unheavenly City.” His cynical view is that there is feasibility and acceptability. And all feasible solutions were unacceptable, and all acceptable solutions were infeasible. For example, getting rid of the minimum wage to reduce unemployment is unacceptable but feasible; raising the minimum wage to reduce poverty is acceptable but infeasible.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    “The Unheavenly City” was a great book. Years before the marshmallow test, Banfield said that the difference between successful and unsuccessful people was “future orientation” and “the ability to defer gratification.”

  7. Lord says:

    This seems even more abundant on the market side. Markets solve everything and all that necessary is to get out of the way. Problems that exist are due to government. The solution is simple and those who don’t agree have ulterior motives.

    • Octavian says:

      I disagree. On the anti-market side, problems are believed to be moral rather than technical in nature: greedy corporations or 1%ers are trying to protect their wealth at the expense of the people, and all that’s necessary to fix them is to defeat the villains. Literally to take over their businesses and put them under the control of the (presumable altruistic) state, take their money and give to the commoners. And those who disagree are dismissed as stooges for the rich.

      See Nancy Maclean for a good example of the popularity of this way of seeing things even among, um, “sophisticated” minds.

  8. asdf says:

    People don’t distrust Singapore’s government, and it does appear to have come up with solutions to complex problems.

    Of course Singapore designates a solution to be “most efficient possible outcome once you apply reason and empirical analysis”.

    I just don’t think there is a way around getting “right answers”. There are correct answers, and either you have them or you don’t. Even “do nothing” is an answer that is either correct or incorrect. People who have wrong answers should be confronted, rather then you making yourself less right in order to compromise with them. That there are people that think they have the correct answer and don’t doesn’t change the fact that there is a correct answer.

    Or as someone put in another thread, if the trains can’t run on time you better have a damn good reason we can’t accomplish what our grandparents could.

    • sort_of_knowledgable says:

      There is no correct answer for preserve all historical buildings AND have affordable housing for everybody AND increase open space AND reduce congestion AND welcome new immigrants, etc. There are bad non Pareto optimal solutions, and there might be an answer that maximizes the utility of the collective population, but to get there you are probably going to have to adjust your initial answer unless you are a near omnipotent being.

      • asdf says:

        Singapore’s immigration policy only welcomes new immigrants that maintain the racial balance and have net positive IQs. It’s kept up with population growth by building sufficient affordable housing. It respects certain historical landmarks but doesn’t do so at too high an expense of real people having a place to live. It has a lot of open space for a densely populated area, a true garden city.

        This isn’t impossible. It just requires a basic level of honesty and willpower.

        • Octavian says:

          There’s no self evident happy medium. To the extent that Singapore preserves landmarks, it makes property less affordable. This isn’t less true if Singapore only preserves few enough landmarks that the impact is negligible.

          Ultimately, a value judgment needs to be made by someone about how much cost it is worth imposing people to preserve a landmark. And economic value is fundamentally subjective, so it most certainly not a matter of finding the right answer. If one person values landmarks more than another, neither can be said to be objectively wrong.

      • Or, we can let people make their own decisions about what they want and what they value and then use some sort of mechanism to trade those decisions off against everyone else’s similar decisions. That way you end up maximizing whatever people actually value via some sort of mechanism which uses all of their combined knowledge and preferences, rather than trying to picture some “near omnipotent being” having to make all the decisions which would otherwise be made by government based on clearly limited information.

  9. Dave says:

    We are rich enough and well fed enough in the West such that nobody has been motivated by an existential threat for a few generations. The seeds of failure and decay are contained in the fruits of success.

  10. steve says:

    The irony of a libertarian complaining about oversimplification bias is amusing. (Government is the cause of all the problems and markets are the answer for everything.)

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      The idea that Arnold thinks “Government is the cause of all the problems and markets are the answer for everything” is absolutely ridiculous. How long have you been reading this blog?

      (Lord’s comment October 12, 2017 at 12:03 pm, on the other hand, …)

  11. This feels a lot like a combination of planning falllacy qnd “what you see is all there is.” Plus maybe a dash of pro-innovation bias.

  12. Matthew Young says:

    The classic case I refer to is No CHild left Behind in California.

    It was widely supported by teachers unions, then imposed with federal rules against the massive state driven educational system. The result was volatility, especially pensions as teachers got continually moved around, or sent to training. Soon the teachers unions were complaining loudly and after three iterations and ten years something got kind of stable.

    What happened when Obamacare came around? Widely supported by the California nurses union, with no reservations.

  13. Paul A Sand says:

    Since I am a longtime National Review reader: eschaton-immanentization bias. (I’m somewhat surprised, but it turns out there’s even a Wikipedia page on this.

  14. Tom G says:

    I like “too-simple bias”, because “oversimplification” is too long (so is “entrepreneur”, but I have no better offering). This is certainly related to “magical thinking” critiques, but applies more evenly.

    Markets don’t solve all problems, nor even most, but do allow more people to optimize their personal problem minimization, under their personal budget. The budget constraint is crucial for sustainability, and gov’t “solutions”, like pensions in Puerto Rico or Illinois, or Venezuela, historically become unsustainable.

    What those who really want to reduce, not “solve”, problems, there needs to be focus on … maybe … “small steps toward a much better world.”

  15. Jeremy, Alabama says:

    This idea forms a chapter in Hayek’s Road To Serfdom. I don’t think he gives it a compelling name.

  16. Rich C. says:

    What you describe is ultimately more of Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit.”

  17. Handle says:

    Another essay by Friedman that is really off base. I don’t even have time to address it all. But suffice is to say that he relies heavily on the vague “trust” as used in polls as a proxy for “results-based legitimacy”, but that’s just completely inaccurate and inappropriate, since ordinary people obviously interpret these things in very different ways.

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