Archive for July, 2010

The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

July 21, 2010

Frequent commenter Lee called my attention to Dean Baker’s book, The Conservative Nanny State.

It was the political left that originated the idea of government as societal trouble-shooter. Conservatives opposed them. Then they got power and became seduced by the same idea, of using government to promote their own pet causes. That’s how we got the “culture wars.” Those conflicts would have had no political resonance if government were keeping its nose out.

And, of course, once the left had opened the floodgates of government cash to fund their do-gooder notions, everybody else soon queued up with their own buckets to be filled. Why should the left get to have all the fun (and lucre, and power)?

Liberals profess shock and outrage that people (and, to be sure, those perennial bogey-men, corporations) whom they don’t approve of exploit the system. Liberals just don’t see how that’s an absolutely natural consequence of their own ideology – of expanding government’s remit to whatever concerns some ardent advocate can invoke. Of course, the intent was to only advance putatively selfless do-gooderism. But such schemes always serve selfish interests as well. And it’s all too easy to cloak one’s own self-serving huckle in the guise of public interest. Every tax code loophole, every corporate subsidy, bears a veneer of supposed public interest. Even the egregious farm program. Even the infamous mohair subsidy.

These scams endure because the interests that benefit fight fiercely for them, while no one else is affected enough to be motivated to fight back. Yet, in the aggregate, it’s the death of a thousand cuts.

We are a very rich society that could easily fund every reasonable social welfare program for the needy – no problem – were it not for all the non-needy sucking at the public teat and actually crowding out the needy. The needy don’t have power and influence. It’s the non-needy who do.

The left pines for an egalitarian society wherein no one can exploit wealth and power to accrue such undue advantage. Just stating the idea exposes the flaw. Ambition and greed are so integral to the human psyche that no political system can neuter them. Certainly socialism and communism likewise foster elites that milk society for their own advantage. But at least, much unlike those statist systems, a free capitalist model leaves plenty of space for individuals to pursue self-interest through non-state means; and this produces better results for society as a whole. (See Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations).

The answer, then, is not to try to limit government to doing only what’s really good, rather than serving selfish interests. Who, after all, is to be the judge of that? No, the answer is to limit what government does altogether.

As stated before, this will be the great challenge of the 21st century.

Swift and true justice

July 12, 2010

You are sent from Russia to spy on America. Your “cover” is to build a totally normal American life, complete with kids–over decades. Does there not come a point where you really are American? When you look in the mirror and no longer see a Russian spy? Didn’t any of these people ever wake up in the middle of the night with the realization that America is better than Russia?

Some readers will blanch and roll their eyes at that. Some Americans indeed believe they inhabit a very wicked country (or at least that such comparative judgments violate a taboo). So perhaps it’s not completely incomprehensible that those spies could live as Americans for many years and still harbor antipathy toward the US and loyalty to the murderous gangster regime of Russia.

Justice both swift and true is a rarity in this imperfect world. But, it seemed to me, if these poor fools believed Russia is such a wonderful country, worthy of such loyalty, then the fitting punishment is to let them live there. And that, within days, is exactly what they got. (Pity about their kids, though.)

Speaking of justice, you may recall the Megrahi case – the Libyan airplane bomber set free on “compassionate” grounds because he was supposed to be near death from cancer. I considered Megrahi’s release by Scottish authorities a betrayal of justice (see my 8/23 blog post), even assuming he was in fact dying. UPDATE: Almost a year later, Megrahi is apparently doing just fine (click here).

Maybe a miracle? Well, that Man in the Sky does have a dark sense of humor. But we non-omniscient humans are actually capable of doing better.

“Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” —

July 5, 2010

— This is the much-derided cry of the government-hating Tea Partier who doesn’t realize his beloved Medicare is a government program.

So much confused thinking: by those who demonize government (except insofar as it benefits them personally), and those who demonize the free market (oblivious to how it benefits them personally).

The confusion is understandable when we have two very different, in some ways parallel and complementary, in some ways competing and antagonistic, yet partially symbiotic systems of societal and economic organization: government and the market.

We need some government. It’s the social contract: I give up my right to steal from you, in exchange for a system of law that bars your stealing from me. This includes businesses – the law also protects against their stealing (or otherwise violating rights) too. (Thus “unfettered capitalism” is a bogus straw-man, which nobody actually advocates.)

Governments are in fact pretty good at fulfilling that basic role – mainly because most people (and, yes, businesses) voluntarily cooperate, because that’s actually in their true self-interest. The problem comes when this good system is expanded well beyond that remit, to other realms where it doesn’t work nearly so well.

Yet some want to expand government’s role to incorporate everything business does. (That’s “socialism.”) They believe government is motivated by public concern, which seems morally superior to a contrasting profit motivation. They fail to grasp that government is a human institution whose minions operate with the same human motivations as those in the private sector and hence are subject to equivalent lapses from virtue. They also fail to grasp that a system compensating people for doing things that other people want (via “profit”) is actually morally good, not bad.

We have seen that because government is (a) subject to moral corruptions just like business, but (b) lacks the equivalent profit motivation to satisfy customers, government tends to be less good than business at fulfilling people’s needs. Thus the observed failure of socialism.

Further, those who want a big role for government rarely realize where the money for it must come from. Ultimately, the only funding source for government programs, safety nets, social goodies, redistribution, etc., is productive effort. That is, the creation of goods and services for which buyers willingly pay. That is the only source of societal wealth.

Government can produce it but, as explained above, not nearly as well as a market system. So the paradox is that if you want a muscular government with lots of social programs (and also a high living standard) you’d better be careful to keep government within limits, to allow plenty of scope for the free market to function, in order to sustain the needed money flow.

This is the dilemma Europe is beginning to struggle with. It will be the key challenge of this century.