The promises of politicians are like the promises of fad diets: too good to be true.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor

Aaron Ross Powell is Director and Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org presents introductory material as well as new scholarship related to libertarian philosophy, theory, and history. He is also co‐​host of’s popular podcast, Free Thoughts. His writing has appeared in Liberty and The Cato Journal. He earned a JD from the University of Denver.

Imagine you’re hurting. Maybe you’ve lost your job. Or you’re dealing long term health issues. You don’t see an immediate way out. You need help.

In this, you’re not alone. Lots of people face similar circumstances. Most would like to be able to handle their problems on their own. To be self‐​sufficient. To pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But sometimes that’s just not possible. Sometimes we genuinely need help–and those of us in a position to provide it should not turn away from the opportunity.

But how to do it? Libertarians say the best way to reduce this sort of suffering is through more freedom. We care about about the poor, and that’s to a large extent why we’re such strong advocates of freedom and markets. Let the market work. Set the private sector loose to innovate. Let people help each other and they will. And these forces–these emergent orders–will not only help those hurting today, but also reduce the likelihood of suffering in the future.

Contrast this with the vision of the state as guardian and caretaker‐​in‐​chief. Put yourself in the position of that person anxious about his future. Two people step forward, each asking your support for one of these competing visions. One says, “Vote for me and I’ll pass this law to put you back to work.” Or, “I’ll change the regulation to guarantee you health care.” The other says, “Vote for me and I’ll free up markets so they can make us all wealthier and provide solutions through competition for profits.”

If we’re honest with ourselves, is it really that difficult to understand why freedom so often loses?

In this, political solutions are rather like fad diets. If you want to lose weight in the long term, the best way to do it by far is to eat better and exercise more. But that’s difficult and doesn’t give immediate, dramatic results. Fad diets don’t often work, and when they do, their results are often dramatic but short‐​lived.

When dealing with a problem like widespread unemployment, the fad diet is the political quick fix. Vote for me and I’ll pass legislation putting you back to work immediately. I’ll give money to certain industries to goose their employment numbers. I’ll shut down foreign competition to help American businesses extract greater rents, part of which they’ll pass along to their workers. I’ll expand government hiring, or mandate greater benefits for those who still can’t find work.

Of course, most of these “solutions” aren’t really that at all. And, even if they do help some people today, they’ll make far more people much worse off tomorrow. They make industries less competitive, setting them up to fail in the future. They increase the costs of subsidized services, eventually pricing them out of the reach of the worst off. They stifle the very innovation that will, over the long term, radically improve our lives.

Free markets work, but we can’t predict when the benefits will come or how exactly people will be helped. Is it any wonder, then, that if you’re an out‐​of‐​work voter, questing how you’ll provide for your family, the advocate of the fad diet sounds so much more appealing than the guy saying we need to eat right and exercise?

And, just like fad diets, even though the evidence is overwhelming that government doesn’t work as well as freedom, people keep going back to new spins on failed policies of the past. We advocates of markets, if we are to make greater headway, have to recognize how our message sounds for people in dire straits. We have to understand why the political message sounds better, and know that the choice of politics over freedom isn’t the result of stupidity or impure motives. Rather, it’s often the result of hope. Misplaced hope, yes, but hope nonetheless. Everyone wants the fad diet to work.

Advocates of markets should be sympathetic to this, and craft our message accordingly. It gets us nowhere to shout, “This is so obvious! Why do you keep falling for the politicians’ empty promises!”

Still, it’s a difficult problem, with no quick fix. The only way to address it is to make the case for markets clearly and often enough that voters become naturally more skeptical about promises by government and politicians. We can do this through education and through telling the success stories of markets, especially stories about how they’ve helped the poor.

The fad diet of political solutions will likely never go away, but by recognizing its appeal, we can increase the chances that it’s overwhelmed by a politics that will actually help.