Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Audience Participation!

The role of government is an issue addressed all too rarely in our political discourse. This is your opportunity to engage me and your fellow readers in a debate over government's proper role in our society. Some of my random ramblings are below - feel free to skip them and head straight for the comments if you want. I warn you, though, any posts that I consider too ad hominem will be removed. This is not to imply that I don't believe in free speech. I just don't like insults on my blog, unless they're directed at Jerry Falwell or Ann Coulter.


At least since the 1980s, American politics has been operating under the assumption that government is a "necessary evil" that we should have as little of as possible. Reagan's statement that "government is not the solution, government is the problem" has pretty much summed up the attitude of most Americans towards government. Even Clinton, a moderate liberal, declared the era of big government over.

But is it time to challenge that assumption? I was reading "Stand Up, Fight Back" by Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. when he made the statement that government does not get in the way of liberty. In fact, government is the sole guarantor of liberty.

This seems obvious enough. Without government enforcement, anyone could steal anyone else's stuff - there'd be no property rights. Furthermore, we'd have no right to live the life we want to live - we'd be at the mercy of the guys with all the guns and money.

Dionne expands this further, arguing that a free market would not work without government regulation either. History bears him out on this one - anti-trust actions such as the ones taken by Teddy Roosevelt have been required to keep competition and innovation in the market.

So government is necessary to protect liberty and to keep the market running smoothly. But how do we define these terms?

For example, health care. Since "life" is one of those inalienable rights that we all can (mostly) agree on, and since adequate health care is essential to maintaining life, we can argue that each citizen has a right to adequate health care. The government, being the guarantor of rights, should be responsible for providing health care for everyone who cannot afford it (or whose companies do not provide it for them). But doing this requires revenue, which requires taxation. Excess taxation deprives people of some of their property rights (along with disturbing the market, if you believe libertarian economists). So where does the line fall?

For another example, regulations. Many regulations protect the rights of a large number of people. The minimum wage law guaranteed - at the time it was passed - a reasonable, livable salary for everyone who worked. Environmental regulations keep people healthy, keep our food supply unharmful, and keep our air breathable. But too much regulation can have a negative effect. Innovation can get caught up in red tape. On his campaign website, Libertarian presidential candidate Michael Badnarik tells the story of poor young aspiring entrepeneurs who are blocked by regulations which place a heavy cost on the citizen.

Liberty cannot abide in the absence of law. Often, the laws that protect one person's liberty infringe upon another's. And the lack of laws that ensure one person's liberty can prevent another from reaping its full benefits.

Is there a way for government to always protect liberty? What is the proper role of government in our society? I humbly ask my readers to voice their opinions below...

10 comments:

Mike said...

The trick with government is where the line exists between regulation and infringement on rights. (Which you wrote. Damn me for not reading the whole thing before starting my comment. Oh well, moving on...)

You summed up my feeling pretty much: providing of services vs. excess taxation is one problem politicians are forced to handle. During the Carter years, at the end of the big government era, redistribution of wealth was such that you actually earned money by being at the bottom rung of the social class ladder. Then I was born, and everything changed. Oh yeah, and some guy named Ronald something came into office.

One thing's for sure: Reagan et al shrank the government. I suppose it's arguable that this shrinkage led to the economic explosion we experienced in the 80s and 90s. It also, of course, led to the culture of consumerism that you posted about on my blog. But I'm rambling, as usual.

I have not read enough different theories on the role of government to be able to offer an informed opinion. However, I believe that role lies somewhere in between total laissez-faire and total totalitarian. More to the laissez-faire side, I'd argue.

In a nutshell, I think government involvement is good in some areas and crappy in others. The good areas are harder for me to determine than the bad ones. As I've often said, I'm much less sure of what's right than I am of what's wrong.

Anyway, before writing further, I'm interested what other people have to say. I work better as a response kind of guy.

Oh, and Jerry Falwell sucks.

Anonymous said...

Being an ultra-staunch libertarian, my answer for what the proper role of government is simple: if it ain't listed explicitly in the constitution, then it is not a proper function of the government. And quite honestly, I wouldn't trust any of these fuckheads in congress or any president to run any of these important things such as education or health care. I have no problem with the free market provide priavte solutions for these kind of things. Maybe some of these solutions might have be crappy, but at least they won't be forcing me at gunpoint to pay for these crummy services like the government does. Honestly I will never understand how people will implicitly trust politicians to do the "right thing" in managing some program even after the constants failures and corruption, but any private corporation would be ridiculed mercilessly if it was providing the same function (like education), no matter how much it tries to prove itself, just because they are doing it for profit (as if the government provides its services out of the goodness of its heart, it's easy to be generous when you steal other people's money for a living).

And to correct a little bit, the government has been growing exponentially since the Reagan years. Sure he cut government in some areas, but he increased big government in spending and tyranny a hell of a lot more than any democrat has dared to. The unofficial motto of the republican party is be for limited spending, except for the things we personally want, like invading people's private sex and drug life and warmongering all over the world. Much of Regean's "limited government" stances are myths. He might have proclaimed to have these stances but his actions were far different that what he preached, like just about any politician you pick out today.

Anonymous said...

oh yeah, that last comment was by me
- Miguel

Jeff said...

Good points. Miguel makes a comment that makes me think - maybe it's, as Billy Joel would say, "a matter of trust." Is "what is the role of government?" another way of asking "who do you trust with your well-being, corporations or government?" I trust the government because they're responsible to the people - I didn't vote for the CEOs. Miguel, I take it you do not trust government any further than you can throw it, since politicians like Reagan often deceive us (not that corporations like Enron don't - but that's another story). So can this question be resolved while the deception continues? And if they both (out of some miracle) become honest, who do we trust then?

Mike said...

Miguel an ultra-libertarian? No way! You're right that in many ways the government has expanded, and I like the unofficial Republican motto. The if-it-ain't-in-the-Constitution argument is certainly valid, but I would counter that such an interpretation leads to trouble because it's such a purposely vague document. For example, if you get too literal, flag burning and pornography would no longer be protected by the first amendment, since they technically constitute neither speech nor the press ("expression" is never explicitly stated).

But the main reason I haven't quite gotten to the full-fledged libertarian point is what Jeff already said: it's a matter of trust. ("Some love is just a lie of the heart, the cold remains of what began..." Dammit, now that's in my head, thanks a lot Jeff!) I am inclined to trust government more than corporations simply because they are elected and therefore theoretically more accountable. However, they do tend to deceive us, as both Miguel and Jeff pointed out. Hmmm...

I guess when you really get down to it, I wish the government could help as many people as possible without drastically hindering anyone else. But I'm not sure how to pull that off.

Anonymous said...

Every freedom is an infringement on someone else's freedom. My right to walk around with a shirt that says "Fuck the Draft" infringes on that sweet little old lady's right to not be exposed to fucking assholes who don't respect the sensitivities of sweet little old ladies. Or, to draw an example from law school, the public's right to be free from pollution infringes on the factory owner's right to run his/her business the way he or she sees fit (and vice versa). It's just that we as a society value some freedom more than others.

Getting to Jeff's recent point - Is it "a matter of trust"? No, I think it's more complicated than that. People are selfish and power-hungry, whether in government or in corporations. I don't trust either very much, although I suppose I distrust government less because it is marginally more answerable to the people.

To me, it's not about trust, but about cost and benefits. More specifically, it's about costs to whom and benefits to whom. Every benefit has a cost. But who should bear that cost? Let's assume, for argument's sake, that a guarantee of healthcare to all Americans will reduce the overall quality of healthcare in America. That means we shouldn't do it because we want good healthcare, right?

Not so fast. Right now, it doesn't matter how good our system is to the 40 million uninsured. They reap few of its benefits. If there were Universal Mediocre Healthcare, then those 40 million people would still be better off. The cost (lower quality healthcare) would be born by the well-to-do. Which, let's be blunt, probably includes us. And I'm perfectly ok with that.

Someone wise once said you can tell the true character of a society by how it treats those at the bottom. It is a good thing for those with plenty to have less plenty so that those who have little can have a little more.

I utterly disagree with those who complain that taxes are "stealing" what is rightfully theirs. Remember my argument in the first paragraph? (probably not....it was a while ago. Look at it again.) Try this one on for size: the same applies to property rights. The right to exclude others from using your property infringes their right to benefit from that property. We generally keep private property because it provides incentives to use property efficiently, which betters the collective lot of society. But that's all property rights are...a means to an end! If they fail to acheive the proper end of government (the improvement of the lot of the least well-off), then scrap 'em!

This probably got some people's blood boiling....but I mean no personal insult to libertarians and I apologize if it comes off that way.

I do not apologize for rambling and probably straying far away from Jeff's topic. Rambling without direction is what I do best.

- Ben

Anonymous said...

The important thing to remember is that governments and corporations are both run by people. I say it’s not a matter of trust so much as it is a problem of incentives (although that would have made a much less catchy Billy Joel song). CEOs look out for the bottom line, among other things. Government regulators look out for expanding their budgets, getting good press, personal advancement, pleasing their constituents, other things and, yes, the public interest. Public choice theory shows many ways in which government actors face the wrong incentives and end up acting in ways that harm the public interest.

A sterling example of this is, surprisingly, Love Canal. That’s the infamous pollution site that led to the Super Fund legislation. A classic case of corporate greed gone amuck until the public-minded government stepped in to clean up, right? The story isn’t that simple. Hooker Chemical Co. actually took exceptional care of their dumpsite because they feared liability. They even demanded explicit contractual guarantees that the land would not be disturbed when they ceded it to the Niagara Falls School District under threat of condemnation. The School Board and other agencies, however, ignored these provisions and pursued their own interests (school buildings, neighborhood development, roads). That’s because they were free of liability and, indeed, public accountability. The right incentives for the corporation led to responsible dumping; the wrong incentives for the government led to environmental disaster.

This article on the Love Canal story is a long but fascinating read. I recommend perusing it and considering how the incentives affected everyone’s behavior:
http://reason.com/8102/fe.ez.the.shtml

Dionne’s apparent view of regulation is the typical one: Selfish corporations do bad things if left unchecked so agencies must use the regulatory stick to keep them in line. That’s one way to do it. I suggest that a better way to regulate is to set up the right incentives so that corporations have to take their external costs into account. Using tradable quotas for air emissions or fishery rights are two examples of regulations that both prevent the tragedy of the commons and encourage economic efficiency.

Another problem with political solutions is that they discourage compromise. Consider the ANWR drilling controversy. Congress was to decide if the land should be kept wild or if some petroleum drilling should be allowed. The corporate-friendly Bush administration only cared about the drilling, so they exerted their influence and made exaggerated claims about ANWR’s bounty. Environmentalists cared only about the land, so they fought tooth and nail to prevent the drilling. No compromises likely, just a winner and a loser. Is there a better way?

One of the policy analysts at Cato made the radical suggestion that the government divest itself of the land and give it to a conservation group. That group would then have an incentive to consider the oil companies’ interests. It might decide to keep the land pristine or it might bargain with industry to come up with acceptably green ways of drilling. The money the group made from the latter could then go to further environmental protection elsewhere. Its decision would depend on if it thought the costs of selling the oil were worth the benefits. That’s an opportunity cost they have no incentive to consider in the political process.

Libertarians who are serious about public policy aren’t always against government. Rather, we’d like to see government consider creative, property rights based solutions to problems instead of top-down regulations. It’s not always easy, but in my opinion that incentive-aware approach is the most realistic answer to the question of “Who do you trust?”

-- Jacob, who feels like he's writing more on your weblog than he is on his own these days

Mike said...

A good point about incentives Jacob. Thinking too much about this topic is making my head hurt, so I have an incentive to stop thinking about it. All I have left to say is that, while the government's role may fluctuate, it's a minute sine curve in an infinite Cartesian graph of possibilities. It doesn't seem to me like it will change too drastically any time soon, or come up with "creative solutions". What I'm really trying to say is, Jerry Falwell still sucks.

miguel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Oh, come on. Jerry Falwell is multi-talented! He not only sucks....he also blows and is full of hot air. In other words, Jerry Fallwell is a vacuum cleaner. This is my pronouncement. Thank you.

- Ben