Sunday, November 28, 2010

Government growth

I believe that government grows for a number of reasons, some legitimate, some not, but it grows primarily because growth is the natural state of government in an advancing society. Conservatives and lebertarians need to understand this as they develop their policy positions.

George Washington’s first cabinet consisted of Secretaries of War, State and Treasury, as well as an Attorney General. It is unsurprising however that as the republic matured there would be need for a Department of Energy, and one concerned with health, and that there would be subordinate agnecies concerned with food safety, disease control and the handling of nuclear materials. It likely did not occur to someone witnessing the Wright Flyer’s inaugural hop that this would lead to at least three separate government agencies and countless laws and regulations. It is understandable, and even desirable, that government expand in response to novel capabilities and complexities. This is the good kind of government growth.

On the other hand, while powered flight and wireless communication and such created arenas that required at least of measure of oversight, it is debatable that a federal authority concerned with education adds much to the institutions that thrived locally for millennia. Similarly, the proliferation of entwined armed federal constabularies of such questionable effectiveness that Arizona saw need to adjust its own law enforcement practices to compensate for the federal deficiency, suggests a government that grows untethered by reason. Government tends to grow because government agents, whether elected, appointed or hired, are naturally disposed to expand their influence, and to encroach on territory that history, tradition and common sense respected as the domain of individuals, or at most local groups that better understood their own needs and interests. This tendency toward overreach afflicts even nominal conservatives who adopt too romantic a view of the ability ot “make a difference” in people’s lives. Access to government power often tempts even the most ardent libertarian into thinking a little liberty can be sacrificed to a humanitarian-sounding legacy, or worse, to a dorm room bull-session philosophy. This is the bad kind of government growth.

Governments and large corporations share the trait of being created for particular purposes. Each is a form of specialization that seeks to maximize the efforts of specific individuals focused on specific tasks. Just as we would not expect an individual to construct an automobile exclusively from metal mined and formed by himself, we would not expect him to provide his own judiciary and criminal code in his relaltions with others. Ideally, governments perform specialized functions for the benefit and advancement of society, and business corporations perform specialized functions to provide better lives and create wealth. Generically, governments and corporations are morally neutral, and any good that they create or mischief they cause results from the moral character of the people that animate them. Both government and corporations have powers and abilities to impact people’s lives in good and bad ways. Like all institutions, this gives them the capacity to be exploited for varying degrees of advantage. We expect some government oversight of corporate activities, since it is assumed that private advantage is their legitimate corporate priority, and the public’s interest interest should be protected by public agents. However, when the activity of government is directed at private advantage or even ideological usurpation, this becomes corruption, and is the relentless pathogen that inevitably infects big government.

The sobering truth for libertarians and conservatives is that there is no single factor that leads to the growth of government, nor to the appeal that government has to a particularly shallow type of citizen, who sees government as an institution with an unlimited credit line, and the ability to exact compliance with idelogical fashions by force. Defending liberty is a twilight struggle. This truth is not new; it is simply a restatement of Wendell Phillips’s observation that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The task of the libertarian, the patriot and of any free man deserving of the title, is identify, oppose and defeat the seductive sounding encroachments on the dignity of free men that are championed by government’s hemianopsic acolytes, who see only joy and harmony as the products of government force. We need to realize that it is an ingrained psychological compulsion that drives some men to ensure that others live a certain way. They are like the army of skeletons in the old “Jason and the Argonauts” movie that keep advancing and menacing while the decent and honest defenders of liberty battle them to protect a fragile treasure. To add to your subtitle, we not only reserve the right to defend leberty from theft, we shall defend it from those idiots that threaten it through misguided intentions, ignorance, malign motives, self-loathing, anti-human animus, and an inflated regard for themselves.


Distinctions should be made between power, authority, influence and force. Power, in its most general sense is the ability to decide winners and losers in some area of endeavor. Powerful people may do this by use of force, but do not have to. There are many ways to wield power even of one does not have a constabulary or cavalry at hand. The Pope has power both within the Catholic Church and in international doplomacy, but it is doubtful that the Swiss Guard scares anyone. The more powerful someone is in fact, the less likely he is to use force in exercise of that power.

Authority is the recognition of and assent to a person’s or organization’s ability to perform actions that affect others. The judges on American Idol have both power and authority in their limited realm, but any use of force by them would likely be frowned upon. The treasurer of an organization may have authority to issue checks without any other significant power. Authority is most relevant to the legitimacy of exercises of power or use of force.

Influence can be distinguished from power by simply noting that dead people have no power, but may maintain influence indefinitely. Influence refers to the ability of someone to affect the conduct of others through persuasion as opposed to coercion.

Finally, the use of force is simply the method of last resort when an interest of one party cannot be reconciled with that of another. In civilized societies we always speak of justified uses of force, because coercion is inherently unjust and any resort to it must be legitimized by appeal to higher interests. All uses of force inherently result in the negation of rights, in that the person sho is the object of that force is denied the right choose his behavior. When that behavior is objectively undesirable, e.g. rape or theft, no controversy arises, but when a person is subject to use of force in the service of someone else’s subjective interest, a larceny has occurred.

If we then apply these distinctions to the notion of value discussed above, we are led to further revelations about the folly of statist policies. Value, as noted is subjective. If the government were to initiate a policy, the result of which would be valued by all, no force or coercion would be necessary to implement this policy; people would follow it because they value its result, i.e. it provides a benefit that is consistent with their interest. Protecting freedom of association, and the right to travel, for example need only be ensured by force when some third party attempts to restrict them by force. Conversely, if a policy relies at its inception on mandates, prohibitions, requirements, and criminal penalties, it is quite likely that the policy in question produces no objective value. Observance must be compelled because the interests that are served by it are too narrow or too insular to garner popular support. This is the hallmark of political interests attempting to increase their power. These interests attempt to use the facial authority of the state to compel people to behave in ways that favor certain groups over others. If one examines the TARP program, the auto bailouts, the stimulus plan, cap and trade, and Obamacare, one sees this pattern repeated over and over. The favored interests do not provide enough of a valuable enterprise to be favored by the masses, so those interests buy favor from pwerful politicians, and philosophers can then be reassured in their observation that power corrupts.

Obama’s petulance is quite naturally the result of his realization that he can be either powerful or influential, but he neither smart enough nor a good enough politician to be both. His power derives from huge majorities in the legislature and sympathetic media, but his lack of influence can be seen in his foreign policy impotence, his lack of success in endorsing politicians for local races, and his need to resort to sleazy and cynical political tactics to advance his agenda, despite his acknowledged advantages. Hopefully Obama is smart enough to know that, as demonstrated by Sparta, Napoleonic France, the Soviet Union, and the Third Reich, that policies that are instituted by force nearly always must be maintained by force and therefore are of relatively limited duration. The venal desire for temprary power is seductive, and occasionally successful, but the natural desire for liberty always outlives it.

Government agencies

Government agencies as a species have a life cycle which consists of being conceived from half-baked and amorphous crises, suckling on dubious and misdirected appropriations, then being sent to forage for new missions and need of subsidy when they have either failed at their primary mission, or have outlived their usefulness. The Department of Education is a good example, but then so is the EPA, which lost all sense of perspective an good sense when “climate change” provided a convenient pretext for expanding its power. The institutions of government have been allowed too much leeway to conform their responsibilities to ideological fashions. Like aneurysms, their growth is pathogical.

Our political class and its self-important academic chorus has grown too unappreciative of the concept that sometimes institutions and enterprises have limited useful lifespans, and obsolescence cannot be ignored in the interests of favored constituencies or nostagic hubris. Just as propping up failed private enterprises such as GM and large banking interests merely subsidized inefficiency and stupid management, sticking yet-to-be-conceived taxpayers with the bill, accommodation of archaic and ossified bureaucracies deprives us of a more efficient and effective government.

Jefferson was being not only concise but also practical when he noted the boundaries of proper government; that they are instituted among men to secure the just rights of the governed. It is beyond parody that we now have government agencies that think it is their purpose to stereotype a group of people, psychoanalyze them without their input, and patronize them into feeling good about themselves