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John Hood: Protect the right to be wrong

RALEIGH — I have strong opinions — but not about how to perform brain surgery, write a smartphone app, design a golf course or produce a hip-hop album. Perhaps you do have a strong view about one of these, but almost certainly not about all four.

Why? Because none of us can simultaneously be a surgeon, a software engineer, a golfing expert and a music producer. When it comes to our work, we specialize in a few things and then trade what we produce for the goods and services that other specialists produce. The exchange makes us all better off.

We live most of our lives engaged in such exchanges. There is a great deal of specialized knowledge, with more produced every day. But individually, we possess or are even aware of only a tiny fraction of that knowledge. It would be too difficult or costly to acquire. We don’t need it. We just need to trade for its fruits.

Among specialists or other discrete communities of interest, however, there is often robust debate. Surgeons learn, practice, and disagree about the merits of new ways to attack brain cancers. The rest of us don’t typically know which side to root for in these contests. We just root for them to keep at it, so we as potential cancer patients can benefit, and otherwise leave them alone as we go about our own business.

Now consider what happens when goods and services are provided by government agencies and public employees rather than private companies and independent professionals. Suddenly, we all feel the need to express our expert opinions about the best ways to rehabilitate a prisoner, treat a mental illness or teach a child to read even though we can’t possibly possess expertise about so many different and challenging fields, and even those possessing such expertise may lack consensus.

The problem is that, unlike in the earlier cases, we can’t simply sit back and let the professionals fight it out. If we don’t like a new smartphone app or hip-hop album, we don’t have to buy it. If a particular brain surgeon or hospital seems to have poor results, we can go elsewhere.

But what if we don’t like the outcomes produced by our prisons, public health agencies or public schools? It’s either impossible or highly expensive to “take our business elsewhere,” as it were, by relocating ourselves and our tax dollars to another state. Instead, we seek to change the mix of professionals providing those services by casting ballots in the next election.

This is not nearly as effective an accountability mechanism. For one thing, we may be outvoted. Even if our preferred candidates win, they may not be in a position to swap out the personnel in question or overrule their professional judgments. And through it all, we end up doing the very thing I’m suggesting we lack the capacity to do well — engaging in debate about matters we don’t and can’t fully understand.

There is no magic wand one can wave here. Ensure more competitive elections? Great. Collect more data and encourage more experimentation and research? Sure. But the problem will remain in some form. It is endemic.

I submit that the best response is to minimize the extent to which people are compelled to receive services from professionals they don’t select. That argues for more choice and competition in education, health care and transportation, even when those services are substantially funded by governments. The next best thing is for governments to pay for measurable performance, by public or private providers, rather than focusing on inputs or dictating procedures.

More fundamentally, this argues for limiting the scope of the public sector. In fact, I think it’s one of the best arguments for limited government. Although you may care and worry about me as a person, it does you no harm if I have a wrong idea, do a foolish thing, or hire an incompetent doctor. You can even learn from my mistakes.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (MountainFolkBook.com).

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