Why Progressive Governments Can’t Work

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Economist Michael Munger writing in the Freeman, August 11, 2014, suggests that we need to re-think what government is and what it can do:

“I come from the Public Choice tradition, which tends to emphasize consequentialist arguments more than natural rights, and so the distinction is particularly important for me. My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA.

But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of “the State.” That seems literally insane to me—a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I had trouble taking it seriously.

.  .  .  [P]eople who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world. . . .”

Quoted in the Wall St Journal, August 18, 2014.

People who want an expansion of government, Munger says, imagine a state “different from the one possible in the physical world.”

The state imagined by Munger’s friends is one in which bureaucrats even-handedly award “natural rights” to citizens.  Munger does not hold out hope for this kind of state because he does not believe it is possible.

It is not possible because governments cannot function as dispensers of “natural rights.”   First, how will a government decide what is a natural right?  And beyond that, how will the government, once it knows what natural rights are, avoid alienating the person or group whose interests are harmed by the award of the “right” to another.  Think, for example, of affirmative action.  If affirmative action is identified as a “right,” all those who believe it is simple racism will be offended.

Governments that actually work don’t hand out anything.  Their job is to facilitate commerce, safety, and freedom.  They are catalysts, not providers of sustenance.  Once governments go beyond their role as catalysts, they become entangled in a web of lies that attempt to justify the provision of largess to one group and not to another. That’s a formula, at worst, for despotism, and at best, for dysfunction, and that’s what we have now. 

So if government cannot be a dispenser of rights, what can it be?  An evenhanded government will be one bound by rules, regulations and laws.  Personal favoritism, personal judgment, and personal animus, personal goals and biases, have no place in the operation of government.

Another thing that has no place is secrecy.  Governments that work are transparent.   There are no secrets, nor is there a need for secrets, for no one is stealing anything and our enemies, if anything, need to know that we are vigilant for our own safety.  And finally, there is a need for those who occupy government posts to understand all of this, to have it engraved in their souls, not merely to give it a nod and a wink.

Consistent with fair minded rule-guided behavior and openness is humility.  It is a staggering responsibility and an honor to be selected to be a part of government.  Government service is not primarily a career, an opportunity for self-aggrandizement or posturing.  In fact occupying a government position requires not only humility, but also restraint, for otherwise, you have what we have now: the arrogance of power.  The police are probably the worst offenders, but it takes some considerable arrogance for Obama to overturn a health care delivery system affecting almost twenty percent of the economy, to do it by lying, to do it by making sweetheart deals with big pharmacy and hospitals, and to do it in order to realize some personal ideology in which no one has any more than anyone else.  That’s arrogance.

Then there’s Obama’s buddy John Kerry, who used his insider knowledge as a member of an Obamacare Committee to make 111 trades of drug companies during 2003, but after his committee decided that Canadian cheap drugs would not be allowed in under Obamacare.  See my blog: The Stock (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) Act.  Who knows how many millions Kerry made on these insider-knowledge trades, but whatever it is, it couldn’t exceed the $100 million dollars Obama spent on an African vacation in which he was accompanied by dozens of airplanes, hundreds of cars, and enough sycophants to last a whole month, much like a Pharaoh.

And we could go on to talk about senators, congressmen, mayors, and highly placed bureaucrats.  The malfeasance, and self-dealing of these folks are well-known and arrogant in the extreme.

It would appear that government officials are not, under the current system, by and large, capable of doing what we, in our blind optimism, elect them to do. 

Politics and government as we know them bear no resemblance to rationale conduct or thinking or impartial codes, rules or laws.  Politics and government in the United States have become merely a free-for-all about who can grab the most of what is grabbable.  Imagine your first day as mayor of a large city or as president.  There are no rules governing your conduct and the only thing to be done is to sit in your office and listen to how you are the greatest man who ever existed and how you will make a difference in history.  After that, the discussion will get down to what can be worked out for mutual benefit. 

Our collective error is to think of this farce called government as capable of any sustained activity directed to the welfare of the people.  The only reason that any rational person would not advocate burning it all to the ground is that there is a small, quiet hint of hope in one branch of government—the judiciary.

The judiciary is bound by rules and laws; its goal is to dispense justice evenhandedly; its methods are open and its proceedings are public; and its practitioners do not hold themselves out as great men, but only as public servants.  Of course, there are arrogant, self-centered lawyers who missed the whole point of law school and of the tradition of Anglo-American law, but they are in the minority.

The hope is not that the judiciary will always be right (think of Mr. Justice Roberts on Obamacare), or impartial (think of the occasional case fixing scandal), or wise (think of the cases allowing the federal government to eviscerate the 10th Amendment), or prudent (think of the historical judicial unfriendliness to the Second Amendment), or even fair (think of affirmative action), but that judges have one thing that no one else has: an extensive exposure to the legal traditions that have held Western Civilization together.

These traditions have required that a trial lawyer be disbarred for putting a slug in a parking meter because he had no change, and that Clinton be disbarred for lying under oath to a federal court.  They require that a lawyer call the attention of the court to cases negative to their own cause, and they require that presenting false evidence or pressuring a judge to decide an issue one way or the other is grounds for disbarment.

For law, the coin of the realm is truth, fair dealing, and openness.  And that’s what is needed in government generally.  No “pay-to-play,” no free trips to the islands in exchange for a vote, no million dollar vacations.

If the voters would abandon their illusions about what government can and cannot do, if they would recognize that no legitimate government is able to deliver partisan benefits to a particular group, then political thinking in this country would undergo a sea change and the prospect of government actually serving the public would be a possibility.

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