Is there a difference between government and society? Rachel Maddow seems to think not.
Pay close attention to these words from the MSNBC host's promo as she attempts to defend "America" against those who (in her view) believe its best days are in the past:
"No, no, no. We're not going to build it. No, No, No. America doesn't have any greatness in its future. America has small things in its future. Other countries have great things in their future. China can afford it. We can't"—you're wrong! And it doesn't feel right and it doesn't sound right to us because that's not what America is."
The first question that arises is: Who is it that says "America [unlike China] doesn't have any greatness in its future"? Who is Maddow arguing against? The last time I heard something like that, it came from the "limits to growth" crowd, which is probably part of Maddow's fan base.
This question continues to be a puzzle until you realize that when Maddow says "America," she means not individual Americans or society but government. And now her fallacy is clear. Frédéric Bastiat identified it in 1850. In his classic, The Law, Bastiat wrote that the "socialist" confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education... We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
I can see Maddow saying that. One need not be a state socialist, however, to commit this fallacy. It's done all the time all along the political spectrum. But Maddow offers us a particularly good example.
Note Maddow's unspoken premise: An achievement isn't great if the government has nothing to do with it. Government does big things. We mere private individuals do only small things. The bias toward government—a curious thing when you consider that its essence is the legal power to use physical force against peaceful individuals—couldn't be more stark. Yet what grounds are there for believing this? When people are left free to innovate and produce, they routinely take risks to achieve things that are great in the sense that they make our lives better, healthier, and longer. Moreover, much of what makes life better is the cumulative effect of many "small" achievements, marginal improvements in products and services. Any one of them may be small, but the total effect on our lives is great. We'd be worse off without them.
Echoing President Obama and Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren, Maddow apparently believes that no private accomplishment is possible without government support through spending on infrastructure, education, and research. But that is wrong. All of those things can be and have been provided in the private market. Government has a way of crowding out private efforts and then asserting its own importance because of the lack of private alternatives. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Government doesn't just crowd out private-sector activities; it also substitutes inferior ones in their place. No one is pleased with education—which has been under government control for close to 200 years. If the infrastructure is in disrepair, who's to blame for that? Politicians don't think about fixing things until they need a rationalization for "stimulus" spending. Why does it take a recession to make them think about the roads and bridges? American history is rife with examples of private roads and bridges, whose owners didn't wait for an economic crisis to fix them. Their incomes—their businesses—depended on satisfying customers. That goes for education and research too.