Saturday, October 31, 2009

We Want a Hero Government

Robert Higgs is an economics scholar that has produced empirical works on the Great Depression and on the Cold War, among other things. He is an expert on the economic implications of governments. Per this Oct. 12 blog post, he also “despise[s] politics in general, and the two major parties in this country in particular.”

When it comes to politics, says Higgs, we do have only two parties in this country: “(1) those who, in one way or another, use state power to bully and live at the expense of others; and (2) those unfortunate others.”

While the post contains many candid (if somewhat distorted) observations, it seethes with cynicism. If I had only this post to go by, I’d assume that Higgs sees all government activity as a net loss to society. Reading his scholarly works provides some balance to this picture.

While I am copacetic with some of Higgs’ anti-government rhetoric, I’m not prepared to go whole-hog libertarian. I too have grown uneasy with the partisan “systematic organization of hatreds” Higgs cites. My once naive belief in a system of virtuous, well tempered public servants wisely representing the best in each of us has been dashed by the realities of the actual economy of the political culture.

Higgs presents the common libertarian contention that there is almost never a cause that comes under the rubric of government that warrants personal sacrifice. In this view, patriotism is an irrational emotional connection to a “predatory state” that deserves to be despised.

While I believe that this view overshoots the mark, much of what Higgs has to say is informative and useful. Higgs’ deep studies convince him that the size and scope of government has already improperly limited liberty and will necessarily cripple it given the current trajectory.

Diagnosing vs. treating the problem
As far as what to do about this state of affairs, Higgs admits he doesn’t know. In this Oct. 15 post, he says that he is a diagnostician, not a therapist. And while he understands why such a response is discouraging, he believes that proper diagnosis is key to proper treatment.

Higgs says that people often ask what they can do to stop the incessant growth of big government. Many are stunned when he tells them that it is quite possible that people that value liberty likely can’t “do anything significant to deflect the trend toward larger, more tyrannical government.” He cites two reasons why this may be the case:
  1. “[O]ne man’s problem may be another man’s solution. Because people’s desires and needs are so varied, people do not view the situation in the same way. … Many people are pleased when the government grows, whereas others are outraged. Still others, of course, have no concern one way or the other, so long as their personal ox is not being gored deeply. In short, the normative evaluation of a socioeconomic condition or development may vary greatly among the people involved in it.”
  2. “[E]ven if everyone agrees that a certain condition constitutes a problem, it still may have no generally acceptable solution. Because of the diversity of beliefs, values, and interests in the populace, whatever is done to create a “public good” ― that is, a condition that, if established at all, applies equally to everyone ― will displease some people.”
I would add to this that citizens often approach political matters somewhat irrationally. We clamor for limited government while calling for government to intervene in issues that concern us. We hate some things government does while loving or being ambivalent about others. We want low taxes but lots of government services. We sense no discrepancy with this and we often support politicians that promise to impossibly do all these things simultaneously.

Don’t just stand there, do something
Keying into ‘the government ought to do something about that’ syndrome, Higgs asserts that:
“Since the Great Depression, the American public has generally approved of an active, interventionist federal government. In a perceived crisis, most people want the government to “do something.” Of course, most politicians and government functionaries, for perfectly understandable self-serving reasons, are quite pleased to respond to such public demands for action ― after all, taking such action promises to butter their bread more thickly.”
I’d use more economic terms. As media exposure grew, so did citizens’ awareness of large scope social problems. To be sure, some of this perception developed due to a desire to sell news and entertainment. But a perhaps more significant factor was that that the economy had developed to the point that people started to see the possibility of addressing concerns that had always existed but that had been beyond the ability of society to address.

At any rate, people began to believe that their dispersed (often private) institutions were inadequate to meet these challenges. No doubt this was sometimes correct. Looking to the strong central government to address these concerns was a natural response.

As the citizenry began to demand more action by government, they elected officials that promised to perform according to these wishes, even if such performances failed to address the issues and/or caused other problems. The seeds of the public acceptance of interventionist government were sown at least a generation before the Great Depression, only to bloom in full once people experienced deep and prolonged pain — something in which government played no small role.

Appreciating societal complexity
The trajectory of government growth we are on today is a natural result of the desire for a “do something” government. Higgs provides yet another reason why this insidious expansion is so difficult to stop.
“Furthermore, in dealing with a “problem” such as the relentless growth of government, we must recognize that unlike the automobile mechanic who undertakes to repair a sputtering engine, we are attempting to alter the workings of a socio-economic process that has hundreds of millions of moving parts, each one with a mind of its own!”
The idea that any ‘simple’ solution would do the trick — especially one that takes a top-down approach — represents just as much hubris as the absurd notion that government assuming control over a sector of the economy will produce lower costs and improved quality.

The only sure fire way, then, to put a stop to the growth of the big government leviathan is to change the hearts and minds of the people. There is no “magic bullet” that will make that happen. It requires a multi-pronged approach at every level, but especially at the individual level.

The way Dr. Higgs sees it, the current course of government growth will not abate until people come to a sense of the incentives for changing that course. He seems to believe that this can only come about through natural events and external forces which are the innate consequences of government expansion.

This view may be right. The nation’s course may be governed by factors that are completely out of our control. On the other hand, history is rife with episodes where individuals have instigated change by bringing fresh insights to others. I think that those that care about liberty and believe in the importance of limited government need to undertake the challenge of helping others come to a similar understanding. The possible methods for accomplishing this can be as varied as human ingenuity permits.

Or I suppose we could just sit around and do nothing. While my suggestion may not quickly curtail the growth of unbounded big government, it’s certainly more likely to affect a positive change than simply sitting around.


Charles D said...

I'm not sure the "clamor for limited government" really exists outside the narrow confines of libertarianism. Is there a consensus for lower taxes - probably yes, although there is probably not a consensus for lower services.

Higgs' perceptions about the two-party system are equally flawed. We have two parties, both of whom are committed to the preservation of corporate power, the military-industrial complex, and an ever more intrusive role for government. There are differences only in rhetoric and in the specific intrusions they wish government to make. The problem is a lack of democratic accountability. Officeholders are beholden to those whose money pays for their campaigns and those with whom they would like to be employed after their time in "public service".

I would submit that it is not government power or even government intrusiveness that worries Americans, it is the fact that that power is used to benefit a small number of very wealthy individuals and institutions rather than for the common good. If government were responsive to the needs of the people and committed to providing for the general welfare, the clamor would be for more government not less.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I cannot say that you are wrong.