Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Need for Big Government

(Picture from here.)

I've been watching the rhetoric go on about the Mighty Government for some time now. I notice that there are a few tag lines that seem to go unchallenged. One is that Small Government is Good, Big Government is Bad. Another is that somehow Government is inherently Inefficient and Business is inherently Efficient. The last one is more implied. This one says that an otherwise moral and intelligent person becomes venal, evil and lazy (and usually overpaid) the very instant they enter civil service. Government is bad. Everything that is bad about the country is the fault of the government.

Okay, these ideas are pretty much crap. By the technical word, crap, I mean without foundation. Without merit. In short, a lie.

I know I fly in the face of prevailing opinion (see here for a serious look at trust in government) but think about it seriously for a moment. How many of you out there are really touched much in any bad way by government? Let's think about it. You get up in the morning. You brush your teeth and have your breakfast. You get in your car (or some mass transit system) and go to work. Work-- probably pretty hard. Most Americans work very hard. Go home. See your spouse. See your kids. Watch TV and go to bed.

Now I can see the work of good government in that scenario: the toothpaste and food are pretty safe. Your water is pretty safe. The roads are pretty safe. The school system may not be what you want it to be (I'll talk about why it isn't some other time) but most kids have a pretty good deal. By "pretty good deal" I mean most schools aren't violent and most kids can learn if they want to. Traffic isn't optimum but people aren't raging through intersections at 90 miles an hour and honking in case you're coming the other way. (I'll tell you stories about Ecuador some other time.) The roads work. The cars aren't death traps. Your house is unlikely to suddenly explode or burst into flames-- code is adhered to by and large. Code, by the way, is created by government and bureaucracy.

I mean it's an American tradition to be pissed off at the government. But the level of "criticism" that's leveled at the government these days is unreal. I have never had any problem getting anything I want, whether it be guns, licenses, property, food or whatever. You have to pay for it-- America is all about the dollar. But it's there to be had.

So, first off. Government is not inherently bad. A whole great gaping shitload of stuff the government does is pretty damned good.

But how big should government be?

Here, you have to separate the rhetoric from the substance. Most of the talking heads that talk about "Small government is good, big government is bad" are using the term "small government" as a code word for ineffectual government or no government. They very clearly say that the population should always decide for themselves what should be done. Government can only gum up the works. For a lot of this, "deregulation" stands for no government and "regulation" stands for Big Evil Government. Remember these terms.

The problem is that the mass of men don't really act in such an ideological manner.

There's a great article written by Garrett Hardin in 1968. A good discussion of it is here. It's called The Tragedy of the Commons. The problem is the exploitation of common resources. It turns out that there is individual incentive to over use common resources at the expense of the common good. You see this every day. If you use a broad definition of common resources as those resources intended for shared and equitable utilization, there's a strong incentive to exploit those resources for individual benefit. You could, in a trivial example, look at a line of traffic at a stop sign. The road is the common resource and it is intended to be accessed through the intersection sequentially. However, it is also clear that there is an incentive for individuals to run around the others in the traffic line and get through the stoplight. Often they do. That's what traffic cops are for.

Another trivial example is the right of way on the side of the road. It's not recognizably "common" in the strictest sense of the word. Often it's owned. But just as often you can't tell who owns it and it might be out of sight of the nearest house. There are those who dump stuff on those right of ways. That's one of the reason dumping and litter laws exist.

It's government that preserves those "common resources" from abuse and enforce their proper use.

I call all of these common resources, collectively, infrastructure. I think infrastructure goes way beyond roads and bridges. It's courts. It's the SEC. It's environmental protection and the FDA. It's all of those social and physical constructions that are necessary to put in place to protect the required infrastructure by which we live our lives.

Business is not responsible for infrastructure-- they utilize it. But no business can put itself in the situation of managing an infrastructure for other businesses for free. If it does, it gets parasitized by the other businesses. (BTW: this is the problem of the infrastructure of the internet. But another time...)

So: ineffectual government doesn't work-- Newt Gingrich believes that's great and that's why he shouts about big government all the time. One of the infrastructural components of our society is a level playing field. He has never liked that idea and you can see it in his writings. If you're not rich and christian, he's not interested in you and that's the society he paints in his writings. If you're poor or not christian, and you like Newt, you got problems because he sure isn't looking out for your interest.

Government has to be big enough to manage the infrastructure of society.

How big does that have to be?

Well, one of the infrastructures that has to be managed is capitalism itself. The free market is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It has to be managed or big players and monopolies will squeeze out little players. That's the name of the game and we've seen it all over the world and here in our own back yard. It takes intervention (read: "government") to preserve such an unnatural system so that it works.

Given that does anybody seriously think that something the size of Citibank or Goldman Sachs can be managed by something run in a shack out on the bayou? No: it has to be as efficient and organized, and as large, as the things that are being managed. There's a reason big banks like little government. They don't like regulation. It adds cost to their operation to be honest, forthright and open. Besides, they can't make shady deals. There are reasons big pharma likes little FDA. There's a reason big energy likes little EPA.

Government has to be big enough.
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