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George W. Bush vs. Bryan Caplan

January 30, 2008

In last night’s state of the union address President Bush said the following:

“As Americans, we believe in the power of individuals to determine their destiny and shape the course of history. We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens. And so in all we do, we must trust in the ability of free peoples to make wise decisions, and empower them to improve their lives for their futures.”

Anyone familiar with the basic tenets of Public Choice theory and Economics 101 is left scratching one’s head. The first sentence stresses that individuals have the power to make individual choices. So far so good and the bit about “shaping history” is also pretty cool. But then comes the second sentence. Bush seems to infer that because individuals are generally good at making individual choices (debatable and debated), politicians must therefore trust the “collective wisdom”. If statists often make the mistake of treating the government as a paternalistic figure with a brain, several arms, etc…Bush here seems to anthropomorphize civil society and voters as a whole.

Could it really be possible that none of President Bush speech-writers have read Bryan Caplan’s recent book? The third sentence seems to imply that the answer is yes. “In all we do” refers to government action, which supposedly is needed to “empower” individuals to improve their lives. This not only contradicts the first sentence, where individuals already had the power to shape history, but also contradicts the middle of the third sentence, where government is urged to trust the citizens to make wise decisions. If free people are really the ultimate decision-makers then Bush and the Congress have really very little left “to do”.

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