Controversial Government Services

Matt Yglesias channels a previous Mere Aggregation post in response to a silly Twitter debate he had with Jim Harper of the Cato Insitute:

In some people’s heads, the existence of public functions is presumptively illegitimate. When people point out that many of these functions are, in fact, useful, they sometimes push back by noting that were the federal government forbidden from monitoring hurricanes, it’s not as if the hurricanes would go unmonitored. This is true…  instead of having a single National Weather Service tracking the weather, maybe we’d have three or four private firms all reproducing each others’ data and selling it to clients. We’d have systematically higher costs and maybe (?) a slightly higher quality product.

Alternatively, we could do the sane thing and be glad we have a well-functioning federal agency that performs this function. It’s possible that had we never created federal undertakings in this sphere all would be well. But we did, and — like many other federal functions — it seems to work quite well and be useful to people, to municipalities, to states, etc. So why complain?

I agree with the “why complain?” sentiment.  I see three distinct arguments here:

  1. We need the government to provide hurricane monitoring because the market cannot provide that function.
  2. The market could provide hurricane monitoring, but the federal government does a better job than the market would (cheaper, more accurate, or however you want to measure its performance)
  3. The federal government may or may not be better at providing this service than the market, but it seems to be doing a good job, so why complain?

I don’t think many people believe #1.  I think many people believe #2.  I don’t because I don’t know how well the market would do.  I think a lot of people believe #3.  I do.

If it were left me to decide whether the National Weather Service should exist or not, there is a good chance I would weakly prefer it not to exist.  But it would not be a priority.  And its existence does not outrage me.