All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1989

Who Are the Problem-Solvers?

James L. Payne is a political scientist who is writing a book on the theory and tactics of voluntary methods of reform.

The following is the author’s reply to a correspondent who wrote him urging greater use of government to right social wrongs.

Dear Mr. _____________:

You write that you are disturbed by the suffering and unfairness you see in society. I am also concerned about many such problems. The question is, how should we go about making the world a better place?

The usual method is to turn to government. For example, you feel that doctors overcharge the poor. Following the political approach, you would contact politicians and ask them to pass a law reducing physicians’ fees. I disagree with this approach. First, it is based on coercion, and i don’t think coercion is an appropriate remedy for most things. This is a fundamental problem with government action. Governments raise their money through coercion, and impose their will through policemen and soldiers. When we turn to it, we are turning to the sword. Maybe this method can’t be avoided for some particularly intractable problems, but forward-looking reformers should hesitate to use it.

A second problem with government is that it relies on bureaucracy: large, complex organizations that are handicapped by self-defeating rules and staffed by less-than-dedicated employees. Bureaucracies cost a lot, often fail to solve problems, and frequently make things worse.

A third problem with government action is that it is insensitive. Government acts through universal prescriptions, laws that apply to everyone. It therefore attempts to regulate situations it does not know anything about. For example, how can anybody claim enough understanding to declare what all doctors should be paid? There are millions of different doctor-patient situations. Unless we study each one, we cannot make a wise and fair determination of the proper prices to be charged. Government will not and cannot study each one; therefore it is bound to impose unfairness and inefficiency in many, many cases.

The alternative method of dealing with social problems is voluntarism—laying aside the use of coercion and depending on individual action, persuasion, and voluntary organization. For example, if you felt physicians were charging too much, your first step would be to look into the matter and find out what doctors’ costs were, why they were charging what they were charging, and so on. A next step might be to approach physicians and try to persuade them to charge less. This would engage you directly with the problem, exposing you to the complex ities of the issue and perhaps revealing gaps and intolerance in your own views. A third step might be to form a voluntary organization aimed at persuading doctors to charge less, or aimed at helping the poor to pay medical bills.

Would such methods work? Not perfectly, by any means. But, depending on the effort you put forward, they would be a start. All too often, we treat social issues as just another form of TV entertainment, like Monday Night Football. We sit in our armchairs and expect “them,” the people on the screen—quarterbacks, congressmen—to solve the problem. When it comes to making a better society, we should get out and work on the problems ourselves.

To some extent, your belief in coercive controls stems from a cynical view of human nature. You declare that “all people are naturally selfish and will take all that they can get. If you do not believe this, tell me one person who will not do it.” I agree with you that selfishness is an element of the human makeup. But so are idealism and the desire to help others. The question is, on which aspect of human nature should we found our philosophy of social improvement?

Shouldn’t we stress the positive? Shouldn’t we adopt the voluntary methods that assume people will be helpful and sharing toward others? In this way we shall encourage those virtues. The coercive method that assumes people must be forced to help others promotes more selfishness and the ever-greater use of force.

You ask me to show you “one person” who will not “take all that they can get.” I can: yourself. You took the trouble to type a three-page, single-spaced letter to me, a stranger, not because it would make you any richer. You were motivated by a deep concern with social problems. And I’ll give you another person who is not totally selfish: me. I want to donate $100 to your Society for Low-Income Medical Assistance as soon as you’ve got it set up. Now that makes two of us, and we’re on our way to winning the world.


Jim Payne