Tuesday, September 09, 2008

We Can Save You!

In this WSJ op-ed, John McCain and Sarah Palin write, “In the first 100 days of our administration, we will look at every agency and department and expenditure of the federal government and ask this simple question: Is it serving the needs of the taxpayer? If it is not, we will reform it or shut it down, and we will spend money only on what is truly in the interest of the American people.”

Were those words spoken aloud, they would be music to the ears of a fiscal conservative. It’s lovely rhetoric, but it’s not reality. For all the power allotted to the Chief Executive, the position lacks the power to shut down agencies, departments and programs, and redirect budget allocations willy-nilly. After all, the president is not the sole arbiter of “what is truly in the interest of the American people.”

In fact, there are three branches of government and the executive is tasked with fulfilling the directions of the legislature. The Founders envisioned the president as a sort of mundane super clerk rather than an all-powerful tyrant. There is no question that the executive has certain latitude to fulfill the legislature’s instructions, but it would make for an interesting firestorm if the executive were to go about doing as McCain and Palin suggest they will do by the end of April 2009.

The grievance industry would go into overdrive. The ‘evil’ executive would be charged with killing necessary jobs, destroying the environment, making children go hungry, hating minorities, and putting families out on the streets. The media would gobble this stuff up and would spew out the most egregious versions 24x7 in an attempt to sway public opinion.

The MSM increases demand for its products in direct proportion to the amount of controversy they can gin up. This model is similar to use of addictive drugs. Each controversy cycle marginally (or sometimes significantly) dulls the public’s senses so that steadily increasing levels of salaciousness and conflict are required to get the same amount of attention the next time around. In a way, the MSM model is very similar to the model used by drug pushers.

Kevin at y-intercept notes that our political industry functions in a crisis-thrashing model. This goes hand-in-glove with the MSM model. Politicians thrash from crisis to crisis, most of which they themselves create. Not only does this make for great news, it provides regular situations where politicians are able to cast themselves in the hero role. They argue that drastic action is required to avert disaster and that only they can save us.

GMU economist Don Boudreaux writes:
“Washington is no less diligent than is Hollywood at satisfying the public's demand for heroic adventures, epic fantasies, and fairy tales. Each production stars supercilious superstars portraying characters boasting magical powers and godly goodness.

“The only difference between Hollywood and Washington is that, while audiences understand Hollywood's leading men and women to be acting, this same ability to distinguish fantasy from fact disappears when the executive producer is Uncle Sam.”
Some argue that it all comes down to money and that getting money out of politics would resolve the problems. Commenting on this, Boudreaux’s colleague Russell Roberts argues:
“There are two ways to reduce the connection between politicians and money. One is to reduce the role of money. The other is to reduce the role of politicians. I choose the latter. I contend that reducing the role of money of politics in order to make politics more honest is like trying to make airplanes safer by reducing the role of gravity. Let's get money out of politics by making politicians less powerful.”
In reality, none of today’s political movers and shakers has the least intention of reducing the scope of government. They intend to generously spend your tax dollars (and those of your unborn descendants) on what, in their mind (or in the minds of lobbyists that schmooze them) “is truly in the interest of the American people” (or at least in the interest of those that are funding the lobbyists). Few politicians are interested in actually reducing their own power, and the few that actually try to do so are clobbered by their cohorts.

I agree with Roberts that the answer is to reduce the role politics plays in the lives of Americans. What is not clear is how that is to be accomplished. We have been on a binge of increasing that role over the past couple of decades. Perhaps the excesses of big government will eventually cause the pendulum to naturally swing the other direction, as occurred after both the New Deal/WWII/Korean War and Great Society/Vietnam War expansions.

There will certainly be no push for smaller government until a significant portion of the American people gain an appetite for it. So, perhaps the excesses must come first. This bodes ill for what the near future holds, regardless of who sits in the White House.


That One Guy said...

Amen, brother.

Connor said...

Great thoughts. It seems like far too many people work themselves up over who will become President, not realizing that Congress has the bulk of power (well, aside from all those signing statements and executive orders... but I digress.).

Charles D said...

I am glad to see you admit that the Republicans have been on a binge of increasing the role of government over the last 20 years (they have been in control of at least one branch of government for all but 2 of those years).

You seem to be unable to recall that government can be beneficial and it can provide important services to the citizenry. Instead of wasting our tax money on outsourcing to well-connected private contractors, waging unnecessary wars, spying on Americans, and mismanaging every single agency of government, we should throw out the clowns who are responsible for these fiascos - the right-wing, "free-market" folks who make government ineffective intentionally so they can demolish it.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Of course, government can provide useful services. But we must be able to pay for those services. Unfortunately, many seem to have a disconnect between having services and paying for them.

Fortunately, most people understand that it is due to the free market that we have any capacity to offer many of the services that the Government offers. After all, most folks can understand that there is no way a country can tax itself into prosperity.

y-intercept said...

The way it works now is that the administrations (ie government departments) write most of the legislation. As such there is very little resistance to the creation of new government agencies.

The system creates a one way valve where it is easy to create new government agencies with almost no way to get rid of them.