We Have Met the Gummint And He Is Us

"Government is not the solution," Uncle Reagan tells us. "Government is the problem."

From being a koan of the fringe right, this notion has become a commonplace. Congressmen gleefully shut down government functions for weeks at a time. Senators suggest that our "moral crisis" is due to government spending.[1] Talk-radio hosts advocate armed resistance to federal agents.[2] Even Bill Clinton says that "the era of Big Government is over."[3]

How did such a looney idea catch on?

The problem with government

Anti-government sentiments obviously resonate with most of us. There's something about the government to offend everyone. On the left, massive defense spending and the S&L bailout. On the right, welfare and Robert Mapplethorpe. In the center, $900 wrenches, Congressional pork, bureaucratic stupidities, and payments on the national debt.

That's a reason to watch out, however. When a politician tells you the government is too big, is he thinking of the same government functions you are? You may be thinking of subsidies for tobacco farmers, and he's thinking about pollution controls. You may be thinking of reforming welfare, and his idea is to throw out Medicare.[4]

The same confusion exists within the Republican Party, which is a contradictory coalition of religious conservatives, libertarians, and business interests. The Religious Right gets most of the press, but their rewards so far have been mostly symbolic-- which is just as well, because most of what they want-- 'family values', wholesome television, a ban on abortion, more religion in the schools-- would involve an increased level of government intrusion.

If you look at what Congress is doing, rather than what it's saying, you'll see who's really in charge. Obstructing pollution and health regulations; defunding product safety laws; opening national parks to logging and mining, or closing them entirely; reducing taxes for the rich; eliminating the capital gains tax; allowing companies to fire striking workers; making it easier for big telecommunications companies to make money; limiting companies' liability for unsafe products-- the program here is obviously to help big business do what it wants without government interference, and to help the rich get richer. Is that program what's best for you, too?

The problem with no government

If government is bad, why not do away with it entirely? Why not have no government at all, as in Somalia? That works pretty well, doesn't it?

Africa may be unimaginably remote; what about 19th century America? Didn't we try laissez-faire capitalism, and wasn't it a disaster? Filth in our meat, shantytowns, racism, 'No Irish need apply', company towns, union-busting goons, monopolies, corruption scandals, a punishing business cycle, old folks living in poverty, failing banks, Boss Tweed, gunboat diplomacy.

The solution to most of those problems was government: food and drug regulation; anti-trust laws; banking regulations; labor laws; the Fed; Social Security. We can hardly understand why many Russians want to go back to Communism, and yet we seem to want to go back to laissez-faire capitalism.

You Amurricans are so na-eeve

This notion that government is bad is peculiarly American. (Even conservatives in Europe bemoan the rich/poor gap, and recognize an important role for government.) The paradox is that only people with a pretty good government could come up with such an absurdity. When you really have a bad government, it's obvious that you need reform, not anarchy.

The heaven for the anti-government theorists should be something like the informal market in Peru-- not the drug trade, but the unregulated vendors who constitute most of Peru's housing, transportation, and retail industries. They don't pay taxes; they're largely unaffected by government regulations. Are they thriving, then?

Not at all. First off, being outside the officially sanctioned market, they're cut off from the protection of the courts. You can't prudently make large business deals, because your contracts can't be enforced. This greatly limits who you can deal with, and how big you can grow your business. Consumers don't have protection against fraud, or unsafe or unhealthy business practices; and businesses that people don't trust don't grow too big either.

Informal businesses are also cut off from the banking industry, so their access to capital is limited. Title to land is insecure, further reducing economic security and opportunities for investment. Violence and crime, uncontrolled by the police, are endemic. Fraud is commonplace; the money you put in the bank may disappear tomorrow as the bank collapses or the directors take the money and run.[5]

Government as OS

When the US was founded, people had the curious idea that the government was simply all of us. The founders called it 'democracy', or government by the people. If we still believed this, we might have no problem with things like government support for the old or for poor children. Why shouldn't we all chip in a little so that no one in this prosperous country needs to go hungry or live in shacks?

I won't attempt to revive this antique concept; instead, I'd like to suggest that government plays the same role in an economy as an operating system plays in a computer. It sets up the basic conditions for other agents to do their work, provides the basic services, and prevents resource gridlock and system crashes.

A good operating system makes it easy for programmers to write programs: they can use system services rather than doing everything themselves; they spend their time accomplishing something for the user rather than fighting the computer (or other programs).

Likewise, a good government makes it easy for businesses and individuals to prosper. It provides services that benefit everybody, resolves disputes, and keeps the system running fairly.

Ayn Rand is wrong: individuals don't prosper all by themselves. They owe their success to the other people that help them, and to the government that provides them with opportunities, reduces risks, and provides public goods. Evidently ours does a good enough job that Americans think that these things come free, like the air.

What government should do

A few of the services our government performs:

What government shouldn't be doing

"Big government" isn't inherently bad; but there's no call for it to be bigger, stupider, or nastier than it has to be. Everybody wants the government to work more efficiently. And there's some things it shouldn't be doing at all. Just a few examples:

Politics would be much less entertaining, but a hell of a lot more rational, if once the "government is bad" rhetoric started flying, people started asking questions like these:

What government services do you plan to cut?

What exactly do those programs do? How well do they work? How much do they cost now?

Who stands to benefit from the proposed cuts?

Are these cuts a smokescreen for increasing spending somewhere else?

What's Congress actually doing (as opposed to what it says it's doing)?

In short, be skeptical: not just about government, but about business, and about the motives of the people who want to get government off their backs. What do they want to do once it's gone?

--Mark Rosenfelder


[1] "Both the economic crisis and the moral crisis have their roots in the explosion of government." --Sen. Phil Gramm, 1995
[2] G. Gordon Liddy, of course. This outburst did not, of course, keep 'mainstream' Republicans from fawning over him.
[3] 1996 State of the Union Address.
[4] Is this some kind of Democratic scare tactic? Hardly. Rep. Dick Armey, the House Majority Leader, calls Medicare "a program I would have no part of in a free world." Note that Medicare is aid for the elderly; Medicaid is mostly that too, but also covers the poor.
[5] For more on the informales, see Hernando de Soto's eye-opening study, The Other Path. The Peruvian government is now attempting to tax the informales, tho' not necessarily to provide them with useful services.
[6] For some frightening reading, see Jonathon Kozol's Savage Inequalities.
[7]See Gregg Easterbrook's New Yorker article, April 10, 1995, for more on the well-kept secret of successful pollution control.
[8] Figures are from Christopher Jencks, Rethinking Social Policy, p. 146. An essential book if you want to know what's really going on with welfare.
[9] For more on what government is doing right, see James Carville's We're Right, They're Wrong.
[10]Peter McWilliams, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do.
[11] Read Molly Ivins' reports on the pro-bidness Texas Lege in Nothin' but Good Times Ahead. Hell, just read Molly Ivins.
[12]Jonathon Kwitny's Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World shows, as its cover promises, "how America's worldwide interventions destroy democracy and free enterprise and defeat our own best interests."