In our current society, “solutions” sell. Unfortunately, this has lead to a state of affairs where all problems are expected to be solved by… you guessed it, the government. Now, most reasonable people (Marxists, perhaps, with their conflation of government and society, excluded) will agree that most of the problems that plague our society cannot be ameliorated by government alone, and that a blend of private initiative and government activity is needed. Yet, in our laudable desire to “make things right” by fixing problems, we often create structures that, in the long run, can cause more harm than good. For instance, as even the left-leaning Economist magazine wrote, “Sarbanes-Oxley, a law aimed at preventing Enron-style frauds, has made it so difficult to list shares on an American stockmarket that firms increasingly look elsewhere or stay private.” It is not atypical for government laws to run into the hundreds or even thousands of pages. As lawmakers attempt to anticipate every possible eventuality, however, they make it practically impossible for ordinary people to comply. A 2010 report for the Small Business Administration found that government regulations cost small businesses over ten thousand dollars per employee.
Furthermore, while new regulations are constantly being added to the books, political inertia keeps old and outdated ones on the books. And all the regulations need enforcement mechanisms, contributing to ever-growing and (worryingly) increasingly powerful bureaucracies. Disagree with the bureaucracy’s interpretation of the rules? Don’t worry, you can go to court to fight them… if you’re ready to invest a decade of your life in a costly fight against a faceless institution. Oh, and you’ll probably be in an administrative court appointed and run by the very agency you are fighting.
We live in a culture of problem-solving, but we ought to resist the temptation to automatically pick the solution with the highest profile. Yes, crime is a huge problem, but perhaps we ought to concentrate on local solutions, not federal ones. Is obesity a problem? Yes, but that doesn’t mean the right answer is to tax Coca-Cola and other sugary drinks. As H.L. Mencken once observed, “for every problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
Solving problems at the expense of our liberty is unwise. It is not the role of the government to serve as everyone’s mom. We would do well to remember that.