The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

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.

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14 Responses to “The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything”

  1. codecrackx15 Says:

    42

  2. Lee Says:

    I think you have said as much in previous blog entries, or perhaps by private e-mail, that you think it good that government provides, e.g., police and fire fighting services. Does including even these in government services open the door to welfare for special interests? Any thoughts on how to draw a line, so that the truly needy aren’t left to die, but the special interests don’t rob us blind? Or is that “reasonable balance” going to be quite difficult to achieve?

  3. bruce ryan Says:

    Lee, at the risk of sounding pretty simple minded, the reliance on government is distracting from the services available by private sources.

    I would surmise a greater effort by private entities when there isn’t some ultimate power assuming the role.
    This is one of the cases where the the tired term, think globally act locally makes a bit of sense.

    Its a moot point though isn’t it, do you see anyone dissolving the entitlements?

  4. kmbr Says:

    **anyone dissolving the entitlements?**

    I see CONDITIONS dissolving entitlements. Think Argentina.

  5. Lee Says:

    Ambition and greed are so integral to the human psyche that no political system can neuter them.

    I have seen plenty of groups where individual ambition and greed were much less integral than ambition for the group as a whole: many marriages, families, and ethical / religious groups spring immediately to mind. In short, are you sure that “the system will exhibit greed because people are naturally greedy” doesn’t have the cause and effect backwards? Maybe the truth is that “if you make a system that rewards greed then naturally people will be greedy.” (I forget who said that.)

    a free capitalist model … produces better results for society as a whole. (See Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations).

    In the end I think I agree with you on this, but it would be a whole lot easier if Adam Smith’s world were the one we live in. I haven’t ever read Adam Smith but, from my readings of others, I am hopeful that the following is fairly accurate.

    Adam Smith imagined that there would be a clearing price for each good, determined by overall supply and demand. Today, there is market segmentation. It does not cost the airline any more if I fail to stay over on a Saturday night, but they’ve determined that they can get more money from those who have it by installing an arbitrary rule. The ticket prices also vary from moment to moment. Those with the time to wait it out, or who can be flexible with their schedules, can get better deals. Likewise, coupons are for those who have the time to seek them out. In too many situations, the price of the item does not depend on overall supply and demand; instead it depends upon how flexible the buyer is, which is not what Adam Smith imagined.

    Adam Smith imagined a world in which the producer that sold a good for less would (have a tendency to) overcome producers that sold the good for more. Today, a producer with more money has the ability to grease palms. Be they other business owners or government officials who get the “bribes” to steer their purchases, it is the producer who runs the business on a shoestring who loses out. I don’t think you can even argue that these “other business owners” are cheating their own shareholders; being part of an oligopoly (or whatever you would call this) is a good way to maximize profits.

    And then there is advertising and, more generally, the slow propagation of (truthful) information. That distorts prices in ways that Smith couldn’t have possibly imagined.

    How do we solve these problems? I see no good answer. I suppose one could try to legislate prices; but that seems way too fraught with problems. Another alternative is to back away from the idea of capitalism a little. If there are some non-capitalist forces to compete with the capitalist forces, perhaps it will keep the latter honest, by which I mean more in line with the ideals of Adam Smith. That too seems fraught with problems. Any ideas?

    FSR RESPONSE: The airline pricing you discuss is, in fact, an almost PERFECT example of Smithian economics, with competing sellers trying to adjust prices in realtime to maximize their profits while buyers are trying to maximize their own utility by responding rationally to the offering prices. Result: airplanes fly pretty much full. (I just came back from a trip — 4 flights — every single seat taken.) And airlines don’t actually make much money, if any!! Which tells us that in this competitive environment, virtually all the utility is garnered by buyers. Thus the beauty of free market economics, benefiting society — which so few understand.
    “Legislate prices?” Please.

  6. kmbr Says:

    **Another alternative is to back away from the idea of capitalism a little.**

    No. Capitalism is just the free market. Corruption within the free market is typically encouraged, precipitated or enabled by government.

    The answer is to back away from government. More than a little. A lot.

  7. Lee Says:

    I see airline pricing as an unfortunate side effect of capitalism; to get the capitalism we want we have to put up with that mess. Heaven forbid if those aspects made it to the grocery store, the gas station, the water bill…. The amount of time we’d have to spend on the process of buying would make the economic system … inefficient.

    FSR RESPONSE: “Unfortunate side effect”? Unfortunate for the airlines, maybe, whom the competitive system pushes to the wall. I spent maybe half an hour online researching & buying those tickets — not bad for a $1700 purchase. Comparatively, the time spent in the grocery store is vastly less efficient! Airline pricing used to be regulated. Result: simpler but much higher prices and higher airline profits. IN A COMPETITIVE MARKET, CONSUMERS WIN.

    kmbr says:

    The answer is to back away from government. More than a little. A lot.

    Sure, there are plenty of parts of the government I’d like to cut, especially our violent approaches to conflict resolution and our subsidies to Wall Street. However, the folks who are getting the most press about cutting the government are the ones who want to cut the safety nets. That worries me.

    FSR RESPONSE: Actually, they just want to cut “government.” When asked about specific feel-good programs, the great majority will say, “No! Don’t cut that! That’s not what I mean!” Which is actually part of the problem, and why nothing ever really gets cut.

  8. Scott Robinson Says:

    This morning’s example. $40 million out of an $18 billion California “water bond” for building a hiking trail from San Bernadino to the Pacific (100 mi.) This is a bond measure to supplement the previous bond measure which still has $3 billion unspent. Let’s not fire teachers and firefighters, let’s just wait on the trail construction until we have the means.

    FSR RESPONSE: But, you see, the 14 nature lovers who crave that hiking trail will badger the legislature and scream loudly and maybe even spread around some campaign contributions (a teensy fraction of the $40 million by which they effectively stand to benefit); and there aren’t any haters of hiking trails sufficiently motivated to actively oppose this. That is why, once you establish the concept of government as the supplier of goodies to all and sundry, it is well nigh impossible to control the spigot.

  9. Brad Says:

    “the answer is to limit what government does altogether.”….. that’s the biggest understatement as well as challenge of the 21st century.

    What amazes me is how the US has come to embrace such a socialist type attitude.

    Perhaps it’s the utopian ideal that it portends that makes everyone fall for it. Trouble is, history has shown it never works.

  10. Lee Says:

    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.

    The judge of that is democracy, the worst form of government, excepting all the others that have been tried. That is, if I had to choose between unerring faith in democracy and unerring faith in capitalism, I’d choose the former. (Fortunately, we can accept both, while still allowing some constructive criticism.)

    No, the answer is to limit what government does altogether.

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

    This is getting lost in translation somehow. Unless you’ve recently become an anarchist, I am guessing that you still support a government that does “what’s really good.” Also, I venture that the task of balancing cruel efficiency with kind inefficiency will not end with the 21st century.

  11. ad Says:

    good government = “the answer is to limit what government does altogether.”

    yes. completely agree.

    liberals = “expanding government’s remit to whatever concerns some ardent advocate can invoke”

    no. I believe your perception is incorrect

  12. Mtnboy44 Says:

    The answer according to hitchhikers guide to the galaxy is: 43. The question is: what is 6×7? And that my friends is why the universe is screwed up.

    FSR: No, fella, it’s your math that’s screwed up!!!

  13. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Who was it who said, “Democracy will work until the politicians discover they can bribe the voters with their own money?”

  14. Potatohead Says:

    The answer to the Universe and everything is control.

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