It’s easy, but wrong, to think of today’s governing philosophy as socialism. Rather, it’s control, including constraining what you want in a number of areas of life.
For example, transportation planners such as Minnesota’s Metropolitan Council want to minimize the demand for miles of roads. We can’t build our way out of congestion, they say. So they seek to constrain the demand for roads by nudging people into living in townhomes near light-rail lines in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
We would benefit from an increase in the supply of energy, but public policy aims more at constraining demand for energy than increasing its supply. Keystone Pipeline, anyone? The federal government seeks to limit the demand for energy by requiring that everything from cars to washing machines use less energy.
Health care? The whole point of soda bans and anti-smoking campaigns is to reduce the demand for medical care that might be induced by certain habits.
In these and other areas, governments that try to limit demand are joined by private-sector organizations. Sometimes these groups have ideological motives (suburbs either make you bored or evil). Sometimes they find peace and profit through a regulatory environment. (See: Energy companies, health insurers, and many others.)
So the problem is not entirely government, though many of the attempts to restrict demand would lose their strength without government intervention. For example, with a guaranteed rate of return and a monopoly position within a defined geographic area, power companies find it in their interest to tell customers: Don’t buy so much of our stuff!
But none of this works as planned. More importantly, it’s immoral to manipulate the choices of competent adults. Though people have some common needs and wants–food, shelter, family and friends, and so forth–they’re also incredibly diverse in their interests, preferences, risk tolerances, and priorities. As such, governments should give them much more leeway than they do.
To be sure, governments also restrain supply. The health care industry is filled with supply-restricting regulations, such as requirements that government approve the purchase of an MRI machine. But efforts to reduce demand are an underappreciated, and pervasive, face of public policy today.
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