Archive for March 25th, 2009

The Return of Big Government?

Many Republicans are upset that the Obama administration’s plans may mean, as one said, “the return of big government.”   While the growth in government spending and involvement in the economy should raise legitimate concerns, the idea of a “return” of something suggests it went away for awhile.  It hasn’t.

I don’t like ‘big government.’  I consider it dangerous, governments have done more killing and repressing of individual rights than any other human institution.  To be sure, mafias, businesses, religions, and other human constructs have done their share of evil as well, government’s claim to a monopoly on violence renders it an especially dangerous entity.

I’ve been questioned about whether or not this view is congruent with my support for much of the Obama Administration’s reaction to the current economic crisis, especially my blog on “the key to economic recovery” where I seem to suggest that even bolder action must be taken.  How can I reconcile these core beliefs skeptical of government, while at the same time embracing government action.

First, what is the role of government?  Americans in general are ideologically liberal, though not libertarian.   I don’t mean liberal in the political jargony sense that you hear from the pundits, I mean it in terms of ideology — Republicans and Democrats share the liberal tenets that freedom, individualism, and limited government are a necessity, and that markets operate much better than planned economies, even if regulation and rule of law is necessary for them to function.  The role of government is to provide rule of law, protect individual liberties, and work to assure that all citizens have freedom and opportunity.

Despite this ideological agreement, the last line is where differences emerge on how far government should go, and with what means.  Do we need to fight a war in Iraq or have military stationed globally in order to protect individual liberty, or could we do that with a much smaller military force?   Do we need government programs and regulations to assure freedom and opportunity?

As for security, one reason our government has become so big and powerful is that it undertook a global mission.   That kind of expansion of military power and foreign policy reach inevitably translates into an expansion of domestic power and reach.  I wrote a blog a couple weeks ago, “Rethinking National Defense” that addresses this issue.  So today I’ll focus on the social welfare question, what should the government do to assure freedom and opportunity for the citizens?

On this issue, there is widespread disagreement.  How does one measure freedom and opportunity, and to what extent should we try to assure people have it in equal amounts?  Is a wealthier person more free because they can take time off from work and travel the globe, while a poor person my be stuck in a horrid job and have no time outside of work and taking care of the household?   Some say that as long as they are not constrained by force, both are equally free.  Others say that the structures of society have benefited one at the expense of the other.   So differences emerge, and politicians compromise and make policy.

This leads me to my first quandry.  I dislike big government, but agree with the left that social structures truly deny freedom and opportunity to many people.   So how do I balance my desire to assure freedom and opportunity with my fear of big government?

Looking at history, I think it is clear that governments are usually ineffective when they focusing on trying to simply transfer wealth and equalize results.  If people get ‘something for nothing’ they’ll simply get addicted to the process.  The reason we value freedom and opportunity is so that people can live a meaningful life and be responsible for their choices.   Instead of focusing on that goal, the task simplified to just transfering money without much regard to whether the money would achieve the real long term goal.  The result has helped some, but for others has led to becoming part of a permanent underclass.

The problem emerges from the dictates of bureaucracy.  There is no one size fits all approach to helping people acquire the opportunity and freedom to live a meaningful life.   Some may need a little aid to get started, others will turn aid into an addicted dependency.   Yet bureaucracies need standard operating procedures (SOPs) and that requires a very rigid policy, especially if it is to cover a country with over 300 million people.  It is easy to have a one size fits all approach to handing out social welfare payments, so that’s what the governmental bureaucracy does.   Simply, the problem is one that can only be handled efficiently if you ignore the question of whether it actually succeeds in achieving the ultimate goals.

Yet, I do not want to simply say “oh well, guess we’ll have to live with so many citizens lacking real freedom and opportunity.”  Nor am I ready to say ‘leave it up to the churches’ or other private organizations.  They can do some good, but have limited reach.  Rather, why not shift most programs completely to state and local levels where the people are closer to the public and understand the problems better.  There may still be bureaucracies and inefficiencies, but probably far fewer.    Of course, this also means a shift in governmental power and money to the states.  This might mean a bigger government in, say, Augusta Maine or even at city hall, but a smaller government in Washington DC.   I’ve found state and local governments to be far less dangerous than huge national governments.    Also local governments could be more effective in eliciting greater involvement by private charities.

Well, great, you might say.  I get out of the dilemma by proposing a solution that is politically infeasible.   And what does this have to do with the stimulus anyway?   To the first point, I have to admit it’s a bit of a cop out on short term issues, even though it is my “ideal” long term outcome.  To the second point, one of the reasons I came to support the stimulus is the large amount of money it directs to states and even local governments to control.

The fact is that the Bush Administration bled states (to be sure, he wasn’t the first to do so), withholding funds while at the same time growing the federal debt by over 100%, from $5 trillion to almost $11 trillion.  That meant that all the debt went to increase the size and scope of the federal government, or to fight wars.   Weaker states become seen by citizens as ineffective, and thus people assume it as a matter of course that problems can’t be solved at the state level.  There is no money or will, thus all problems must have a federal answer.   That problem has been exacerbated by the previous administration and if the Obama plan starts working towards stronger states, that’s good.  But it’s only the first step.