Protect the right to be wrong


RALEIGH — I have strong opinions — but not about how to perform brain surgery, write a smartphone app, design a golf course, or produce a hip-hop album. Perhaps you do have a strong view about one of these, but almost certainly not about all four.

Why? Because none of us can simultaneously be a surgeon, a software engineer, a golfing expert, and a music producer. When it comes to our work, we specialize in a few things and then trade what we produce for the goods and services other specialists produce.

There is a great deal of specialized knowledge, with more of it being produced every day. But individually, we possess or are even aware of only a tiny fraction of that knowledge. We don’t need it. We just need to trade for its fruits. Among specialists or other discrete communities of interest, however, there is often robust debate. The rest of us don’t typically know which side to root for in these contests. We just root for them to keep at it.

Now consider what happens when goods and services are provided by government rather than the private sector. Suddenly, we all feel the need to express our opinions about the best ways to rehabilitate a prisoner, treat a mental illness, or teach a child to read.

The problem is that, unlike in the earlier cases, we can’t simply sit back and let the professionals fight it out. If we don’t like a new app or album, we don’t have to buy it. But what if we don’t like the outcomes produced by our prisons, public health agencies, or public schools? It’s either impossible or highly expensive to “take our business elsewhere,” as it were, by relocating ourselves and our tax dollars to another state. Instead, we seek to change the mix of professionals providing those services by casting ballots in the next election.

This is not nearly as effective an accountability mechanism. Even if our preferred candidates win, they may not be in a position to swap out the personnel in question or overrule their professional judgments. And through it all, we end up doing the very thing I’m suggesting we lack the capacity to do well — engaging in debate about matters we don’t and can’t fully understand.

I submit that the best response is to minimize the extent to which people are compelled to receive services from professionals they don’t select. That argues for more choice and competition in education, health care, and transportation, even when those services are substantially funded by governments. The next best thing is for governments to pay for measurable performance rather than focusing on inputs or dictating procedures.

More fundamentally, this argues for limiting the scope of the public sector. In fact, I think it’s one of the best arguments for limited government. Although you may care and worry about me as a person, it does you no harm if I have a wrong idea, do a foolish thing, or hire an incompetent doctor. You can even learn from my mistakes.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and author of the forthcoming novel “Mountain Folk,” a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (


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