Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Dude, What Crisis?

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force. Like fire, it is a troublesome servant and a fearful master.” – (often attributed to George Washington, but not historically verifiable as such)

Our Founders understood that government is necessary, but also recognized that it has the power to enslave its citizens. Government is absolutely the best tool for a very few tasks, but it is a lousy tool for the vast majority of society’s needs. And the level of government at which control is applied makes a great deal of difference. The higher the level, the more oppressive the outcome.

For these reasons, there was extremely heated debate and sharp differences about the role of the federal government in the early years of our republic, with the majority of power residing in state governments. The Civil War changed all of that. Since then the balance of power has shifted significantly to the federal government.

Some good things have come from this (abolition of slavery, civil rights, uniformity, stronger national defense, etc.), but it is easy to argue that the pendulum has swung too far. A rebalance of power, moving functions to their most appropriate level of government, is in order.

U.S. NewsDavid Gergen decries the “dysfunctional” nature of “the political leadership of the country, especially in Washington” here. (Hat tip: LaVarr Webb) Gergen whines about the slowness of our political process. Actually, the Founders intended it to be slow and deliberate. They felt that quick legislative decisions lead to bad government. I’m less concerned about the pace of our political process than I am about its direction.

The ever astute LaVarr Webb, commenting on Gergen’s article says (here, scroll down to Tuesday Soapbox), “The problem is that the national politicians are trying to do far too much; their job description has become so bloated that there is no way they can do it all. They can’t take care of every problem known to man.”

Webb echoes his previous essay (here, scroll down to Wednesday Buzz) where he compares our current governmental system to the old mainframe computer paradigm, where only a few relatively limited applications could be broadly accessed. Webb calls for a revival of federalism, devolving power to the lowest effective (i.e. most appropriate) level of government. He compares this model to “intelligent networks of PCs with intelligence and capacity dispersed out on the periphery, but networked together for plenty of interaction and collaboration.”

Do you ever wonder why government never seems to have enough money to satisfy all of its “needs?” At least, that’s what I heard over and over again during the last legislative session when anybody talked about Utah’s massive budget surplus: there are always more “needs.” It is because, as Ernest S. Christian & Gary A. Robbins show here, for every $1 of tax collected, it costs the economy—that means you and me—roughly $2.57.

This is why I argue here that the amount of money government spends translates directly into the amount of control government exercises over the lives of its citizens. Whatever government spends, it must collect. Walter Williams contends here that there is no budget deficit “any meaningful economic sense,” because government uses alternative methods to “tax” us, such as debt, increased interest rates, etc. In other words, government effectively collects what it spends. Williams says, “[T]he true measure of the impact of government on our lives is not the taxes we pay but the level of spending.”

Jagadeesh Gokhale says here that our country’s extensive system of entitlements is a major culprit in enslaving the populace. While a handful of conservatives want to dismantle the system (and indeed, without reform, the system will eventually collapse of its own weight), we have to realize that ‘conservative’ politicians over the years “played a significant role” in “expanding and cementing entitlement benefits without regard for future consequences.” Gokhale says that they cannot now demand solely conservative fixes to the system, and that conservatives are only in a position to seek watered-down compromises.

I completely agree with LaVarr Webb on the need for federalism. But achieving limited government is at least as important as devolving power to state and local governments. Indeed, I would argue that the two are intertwined. When functions move to their most appropriate level, they will become more cost effective, and some will disappear altogether as they become unnecessary.

There are several problems with my utopian plan. One is that our society has come to worship uniformity. Differences in state laws (insurance, taxes, licensing, etc.) are inconvenient for a populace that has become as mobile as has ours, so these differences are seen as bad. How odd that we spend copious amounts of money to travel to ‘quaint’ places that offer something different. We need to accept the concept that some variety in laws can be desirable.

Probably the greatest barrier to my plan is the nature of power. Our Founders understood that once power is elevated, it is not easily pulled back to a lower level without extreme measures, which could ultimately lead to violence. This is why rebel patriots were willing to go to war with their government over the seemingly relatively innocuous Stamp Act and subsequent parliamentary acts that effectively asserted Parliament’s right to regulate every aspect of the lives of Americans.

Are we wise enough to reverse the trends of expanding and centralizing government? I would like to think so, but I’m not very confident about it. We seem to address issues of this nature only in crisis mode, and few people seem to think any crisis exists at present.


brett said...

Great article, but you should know that wikiquote categorizes your Washington quote as "spurious": http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Washington#Spurious_quotations


Reach Upward said...

Thanks for helping ensure accuracy.

David said...

Just an interesting thought as I read your post. You suggest that having some differenc ein the laws between the states is not necessaruly a bad thing. I agree with that.

As I read that, it struck me that this would create something of a market force on our laws. The states with laws most favorable to business would attract more businesses. The states with laws more favorable to people would attract people. Businesses need people and people need businesses. The states would learn to strike a balance between favoringtheir citizens and favoring corporate interests. If there were more room for states to make their own laws (less federal interference) there would be a form of competition for resources as individuals and businesses gravitate to those states that seem to have the right balance for their needs.

By now I'm rambling so I'll stop. Good post. It was thought provoking.

Reach Upward said...

Good points, David. Some of this kind of thing happens now, but I think we're a long way from where we could be.

Travis said...

Excellent post as usual.

I don't know of you have ever attended Brett Latimer's lecture at BYU, but your comment, "Some good things have come from this (abolition of slavery, civil rights, uniformity, stronger national defense, etc.), but it is easy to argue that the pendulum has swung too far. A rebalance of power, moving functions to their most appropriate level of government, is in order," reminded me of his lecture, and I think that you would enjoy it very much.

And just as a side note, Walter E. Williams is one of the reasons that I have a keen interest in economics. I think that he is one of the most thoughtful columnist out there.