Of Grift and Government

Scott McLemee reviews Can Government Do Anything Right? by Alasdair Roberts.

April 20, 2018
Cover of Can Government Do Anything Right? by Alasdair Roberts

In 1952, a graduate student in sociology from the University of Chicago named Erving Goffman published a paper in the journal Psychiatry that I reread every few years with deepening respect. It analyzes one seemingly marginal and highly specific kind of person-to-person interaction, then pulls back, like a movie camera, to take in more and more of the terrain of everyday life.

The title, “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure,” uses two pieces of criminal argot resonant of a David Mamet play. A “mark,” in the lexicon of con artists at midcentury, was the target of a swindle. See also: dupe, chump, patsy. No synonyms come to mind for “cooling out,” which is a very specific operation sometimes necessary after the mark has been relieved of money. In a smoothly run con, the mark will accept both the sure-thing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and, later, the explanation for why it failed. (The overseas company he invested in was shut down by corrupt officials who confiscated all the funds, for example.) “The mark is expected to go on his way,” as Goffman puts it, “a little wiser and a lot poorer.”

But, on occasion, the victim is left not just unhappy or angry but inclined to involve the police or other authorities. In that case, it becomes necessary to “cool the mark out,” which sounds like a very delicate kind of psychological intervention. For the mark has staked, and lost, not only his money but a good part of his self-image. The con flatters and emboldens the mark’s sense of being shrewd, canny -- able to spot an opportunity and to judge risks. But circumstances have proven otherwise, and left the mark feeling humiliated and vengeful. The cooler is adept at defining “the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home,” says Goffman. He “exercises upon the mark the art of consolation.” Then on to the next con.

Goffman’s paper deftly shifts perspective to reveal the mark as someone in a basic human predicament, facing a bitter fact of social life that nobody, I suppose, escapes entirely. To wit: the experience of finding a gap between what someone believes about themselves and expects others to acknowledge, on the one hand, and unambiguous evidence to the contrary. That happens in an endless variety of ways, from the trivial to the catastrophic; rather than give examples, let me recommend you consult the paper itself. Goffman’s point is many of the jobs, rituals and routines necessary to keep institutions running and personal drama within reasonable limits amount to just so many variations on the theme of “cooling the mark out.”

Looking at it from the other end of the telescope, Goffman’s paper also implies that quite a lot of social life amounts to a series of bunco schemes. It is a perspective once associated with film noir and currently applicable to much of the breaking news from day to day.

But I’ve just come across an unexpected variant of it in Can Government Do Anything Right? (Polity) by Alasdair Roberts, who is director of the school of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The overall drift of his answer to the titular question seems to be “Yes, within limits, although admittedly not many people seem to think so, because they either expect too much from it or spend all their time obsessing about the failures.”

There are occasional expressions of cautious optimism: European integration and intra-European peace can continue despite E.U. wobbles; “judged by the number of attacks or the number of deaths, the current wave of terrorism in North America and Western Europe is less severe than that of the 1970s”; the U.S. dedicates “a smaller share of national income to defense than at any point in the Cold War.” For the sake of balance, perhaps, the author also expresses cautious pessimism about economic inequality, climate change and geopolitical rivalries. The search is on for a “new paradigm” in public policy to overcome the excesses of neoliberalism, just as neoliberalism overcame the excesses of the welfare state. In the meantime, things may get unpleasant, but “pragmatism, empiricism and open-mindedness” can and should win in the long term.

Here, then, is centrism at its most anodyne. So it’s a bit startling when, near the end of the book, the author calls government “a sort of confidence trick.” What sort? He explains:

Confidence artists know two kinds of tricks: the “short con,” a quick deception that yields a small reward, and the “long con,” an elaborate ruse that involves many people and plays out over a long time. Government is a long con. The aim is to persuade people that the state is durable and its authority unassailable … If the confidence trick works, leaders benefit, because it discourages resistance to their authority. But the rest of us benefit too. If we do not believe that there is stability and predictability, we are reluctant to make plans and undertake new projects.

So it's an altruistic racket? A con for the marks’ own good? The analogy is offered in an almost bizarrely uncynical tone, and without the critical implications that show around the edges of Goffman's analysis. I'm not sure what to make of it. But one implication comes to mind: it may be a bad idea to put a short-term con artist in charge of a long-term con. For the latter, a cooler is sometimes required. Even the most trusted fixer just won't do.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top