One common distinctiveness I’ve noticed in a lot of left-wing progressives is this habit to make the unthinking claim that governments should provide this or should do that or perform something while romanticising the process by which the democratic state functions to a point of smooth sailing.

What does it exactly mean to say that government should do or provide X efficiently?

First, X has to be on the agenda in the mainstream news, because politicians want votes and they care about tackling issues in the mainstream. Out of all the different dozen issues in mainstream political discourse: drug laws, housing issues, LGBT rights, the death penalty, tax rates, public transportation efficiency, free speech rights, immigration - how likely is it that you are able to push X to the forefront of the news? How will you prevent X from being dwarfed out?

But before X can even have a chance of penetrating mainstream discourse, there has to be a free flow of information. In other words, you need an independent media landscape free of state propaganda and concentrated wealthy corporate ownership. Otherwise, the "important issues" are merely an illusion. The only societies that more or less fit into these criteria are the small minority at the top of the Press Freedom Index.

Suppose that there is a generally free flow of information. Then, voters have to CARE about politics. In reality, this is hardly the case. Most voters are utterly uninterested to the political process not because they’re unintelligent, but because playing video games and having sex and catching the latest Justice League is way more gratifying then poring through hundred-page policy reviews and reports from your favourite think tanks after you knock off from an 8-hour work shift.

Assume that citizens in general do care. Voters then have to be adequately rational and sufficiently educated to know how to vote. Yet this decision is enormously difficult. They do not choose between single policies, but between bundles of policies. Should I pick A, B and C over X, Y and Z? Should I pick more environmental protection over more national defence? Less income inequality or a higher minimum wage? A bigger state budget on education or housing? More immigration security or reducing government debt?

How does the average voter calculate these trade-offs? How does he weigh these costs and benefits against one another? This isn’t microeconomics 101 on a chalkboard in a classroom where gaining one unit of A is easily comparable to losing one unit of B. There is no such common metric standard that voters can make use of, making these decisions significantly more complex, if not impossible. The result is that voters end up using unreliable heuristics to decide (political rhetoric, politician’s charisma, values, ideology).

Now assume again that a large majority of the voting electorate is relatively well-informed i.e., they understand economics and possess the technical know-how. Instead of watching Game of Thrones every Sunday, they study political economy and read policy reports and have a good grasp on which party will bring the best overall aggregate benefits after accounting for the costs.

But then how confident are we that voters can assess politicians well? The knowledge required to perform this task is not picked up in a textbook, but by diligent research and calculation of the politician’s past careers, along with a whole lot of guesswork. How exactly will you compare the competence of a multi-millionaire tycoon owner of an oil business against a chief of military to run a country? Wealth? Revenue? A scandal-free record? The variables are endless (and unreliable). How assured are we that the millions of voters will practice wise judgement in picking politicians - how far are we willing to trust the “wisdom of the crowd”? Populism in the U.S., Philippines, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic etc has exposed the charming naivete of these views.

Even if citizens in your country are not easily led on by populist claims of “free goods” and “immigrants are taking our jobs”, these judgements are merely predictions in the wind. Even politicians with the most promising track records have defaulted on their campaign policies. There’s a stark difference between what politicians claim they’ll do and whether they actually do it. Nobody can know with certitude what a politician will actually do once they get into office. The long history of false and unfulfilled campaign promises affirms this.

But assume for the umpteenth time that they’re just as benevolent as the second coming of our saviour Lord Jesus Christ and they attempt to keep all their campaign promises. Then you need them to be intellectually competent and possess sufficient political clout to maneuver politics. But politicians are humans, and humans err. Maybe they get sidelined/expelled by their own party for being too uncompromising, maybe they get captured by wealthy interest groups, maybe they turn out to be corrupt, incompetent or both.

So, you vote them out at the next election cycle – a grand total of 4-5 years later – while the economically poorest in society continue to be deprived of the same level of prosperity that the middle and upper classes enjoy.

While the free market is by no means perfect, the biggest advantage of allocating goods through markets is the fact that the most ignorant voter is not intellectually handicapped the same way they are in the democratic process. Firms in a market do not possess exclusive authority over the production of goods the same way governments do. Multiple healthcare or housing companies can exist simultaneously. With markets, there is an easy method to compare and contrast - you either buy something because you value it or you don’t. You cannot evaluate alternatives in government since no two policies can be enacted at the same time. This is arguably the most important point that needs to be stressed.

Oftentimes, progressives forget that saying “government should do something” is the equivalent of arguing for the allocation of goods through this arduous democratic process. It will do good for them to remember this.
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