Cooperation over Coercion: A Review of ‘The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome’

The United States government has racked up overwhelming bills that are coming due soon. The combination of federal debt and unfunded liabilities exceeds all the assets on the entire planet. “The crater that will be left after the fiscal bomb goes off will be very large indeed. What shall we put in it?” That’s the question at the heart of Kevin D. Williamson’s new book The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure. As the title suggests, Williamson is optimistic about the coming changes.

He bases his optimism on the exceptional innovation and progress we see in many areas of American life. Countless products—Williamson’s preferred example is the iPhone— are getting better and more affordable each year, improving standards of living across races and classes.

Then he contrasts these innovations with three important goods that are primarily provided by government: Social Security, health care, and education. Why are these stagnating or degenerating while so many other areas of life are improving?

The first three chapters of the book are devoted to explaining why “politics” does not work and cannot last. Williamson uses the term “politics” in a broad way to incorporate all the agents and institutions of government and political processes. “The cop walking the beat is as much engaged in politics as the man running for president,” he writes.

Williamson defines politics as “violence.” If you fail to pay your parking ticket or try to set up a hot dog stand without a license, eventually men with guns will come force your compliance. He argues that this ability to resort to coercion is the reason government services are so inferior to those provided by the private sector. Politics is isolated from the forces that give rise to products like the iPhone—innovation, evolution, and choice.

Williamson makes the case that cooperation and voluntary transactions are far superior to politics. Americans often think that providing public goods is a core function of government, but he cites many instances where voluntary groups step up to provide them. Starbucks has become something like New York City’s public toilet. The Central Park Conservancy is a non-profit organization that arose spontaneously to care for a public park that is free for all to enjoy. In fact, government is hardly in the business of providing public goods anymore. Williamson looks at the federal budget and concludes that “two dollars out of every three dollars the federal government spends is spent on something that does not come close to meeting the definition of a public good.”

The next three chapters of the book look at Social Security, health care, and education. Williamson recounts how perverse incentives and failure to evolve caused their current dysfunction. He gives some interesting examples of voluntary alternatives to these government programs. For instance, before the new deal, about 98 percent of adult African-Americans in large cities were insured through fraternal societies. This “consisted for the most part of poor people insuring poor people, without the benefit of paternalistic charity or paternalistic government. “

Williamson’s chapter on public education is arguably the most fresh and novel part of the book. He eschews typical rhetoric about evil teachers unions (without giving them a pass). Rather, he argues that the problem with public schools is that they see their customer as the government and their product as future members of the national workforce. Consequently, “we have nine hundred kinds of shampoo, and one outdated, nineteenth-century model of schooling.” A market-based education system would see students as its customers and education as the product.

He calls private schools an “extension of the government-school monopoly.” People like President Obama, who are in a position to improve public schools, send their children to private schools. If Sasha and Malia were subjected to a public-school education, Obama might undertake true reform.

In the final chapter, Williamson goes in an unexpected direction and asks whether we need political law and law enforcement. It’s probably wise of him to hold off on such a radical proposition until readers have come along for his arguments that voluntary transactions are a superior alternative to government-provided Social Security, health care, and education. The law—which is inherently political—suffers from the same problems as those programs. Laws today are so unpredictable, arbitrary and complicated that sometimes it’s impossible to comply with them. He writes, “Private actors operating cooperatively in markets are more than capable of generating law.” For example, the Silicon Valley Arbitration Center was established after a judge who had never used a computer presided over Microsoft’s famous anti-trust case. Now, when companies in Silicon Valley have a dispute over a highly technical matter like patents, they turn to the Arbitration Center where an expert renders a decision. If this works for Silicon Valley, why couldn’t we establish similar bodies for other spheres of life?

Given how methodical he is about most of his arguments, it’s surprising how little Williamson says about “the end” that he claims is “near.” He basically throws us on Herbert Stein’s Law (“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”) without further elaboration. So the end is near. It may not be awesome. In fact, it may well be quite awful. At one point, Williamson compares America’s current situation to the fall of the Roman Empire—which, let’s not forget, ushered in the Dark Ages.

Williamson deserves a lot of credit for presenting such an upbeat, humorous, and compassionate picture of voluntary transactions. Along the way, he manages to hit nearly every major principle of free-market economics—from the broken windows theory to local knowledge. But he avoids simplistic maxims about markets solving every problem. He combats stereotypes about Libertarians being selfish and miserly by stressing how voluntary transactions would particularly benefit the poor.

Williamson is the first to admit that a society in which voluntary transactions trump politics will still have its problems, but he makes a strong case that it’s endlessly preferable to where we are now. Not everyone will agree that this type of society is achievable, but the picture Williamson sketches is an attractive one. If this is truly the direction America is headed, it will be awesome.

Emma Elliott Freire is an American writer living in England. ‘End is Near’ image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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