The government efficiency argument

Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein  says that “How government is run, more than what exactly it does, seems set to be the main battleground of American politics in coming years.”  He then cites articles from the New America Foundation that say the government’s approach is to build a  kludge (“a clumsy, inelegant, difficult to extend, hard to maintain yet effective and quick solution to a problem”) and to function like “a giant coupon machine.”  Explains Klein:  “Think clunky Obamacare versus streamlined single-payer health care, or government’s tendency to deliver benefits via the tax code, through deductions, credits and exclusions, rather than by direct payments.”

Do you see where this is going?  But is there a valid point here? [Read more...]

Freedom and Government

To the list of great political theorists, I would like to add director John Ford. I’d like to raise for your consideration a comment I made on the “Who holds the deed to your house” post:

We watched “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” last night in my film class. The lawless “state of nature” does NOT promote private property or free enterprise. Rather, in that movie, the lawless cattle ranchers, with their power and gunslingers, were taking the property of the small farmers so they could have an “open range.” Only until law came to Shinbone and the people voted for statehood was private property protected.

(What a great movie, by the way! Jimmy Stewart AND John Wayne AND Lee Marvin AND Lee Van Cleef, not to mention great supporting actors such as Andy Devine. And the incomparable direction of John Ford.)

To expand the point: Many conservatives and libertarians believe that government, by its nature, limits human freedom. In a state of minimal government, free enterprise economics would thrive, and human beings would form in other dimensions of life an analogous self-regulating order.

In the thought experiment that is John Ford’s movie, “Liberty” Valence may have liberty, but he is about the only one. There is no private property. When he wants to take someone’s steak, he just takes it. When the cattlemen want their cattle to graze on farms, they just cut the fences. Because the advocates of the “wild west” do not respect anyone’s private property, there is no free enterprise economics. “Shopkeepers” stand with the small farmers to work for a rule of law and statehood for the territory. The community has to stand up against Liberty Valence. Violence (cf. “valence”?) is indeed necessary to create social order. Liberty Valence has to be shot. And those who can stand up against him, like Tom Donophan (John Wayne), ironically, also have no place in the new civilized order.

But, according to Ford, government is necessary for freedom. Not that government cannot also squelch freedom, as in the totalitarian systems of Fascism and Communism, both of which Ford fought. But a democratic government and the rule of law, in his mind, was a prerequisite for both personal freedom and a free economy. Isn’t he right?

Campaigning vs. Governing

Might the skill sets necessary for getting elected be incompatible with the skill sets necessary for actually governing?  Now that our politicians are in constant campaign mode–which requires pie-in-the-sky promises and unrealistic rhetoric–does that, by its very nature, prevent them from solving actual problems?

Such scary thoughts are inspired by economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson.  He chastizes both liberals (for running up huge deficits with no concern for the consequences) and conservatives (for insisting on tax cuts even in the face of those huge deficits).  Then he cuts to the problem:

Governing is about making choices. By contrast, the la-la politics of both left and right evade choices and substitute for them pleasing fictional visions. . . .

The common denominator is a triumph of electioneering over governing. Every campaign is an exercise in make-believe. All the good ideas and good people lie on one side. All the “special interests,” barbarians and dangerous ideas lie on the other. There’s no room for the real world’s messy ambiguities, discomforting contradictions and unpopular choices. But to govern successfully, leaders must confront precisely those ambiguities, contradictions and choices.

The make-believe of campaigns increasingly shapes the process of governing. Whether this reflects cable TV and the Internet — which reward the harsh hostility of extreme partisanship — or the precarious balance between the two parties or something else is hard to say. But the disconnect between policy and the real world is harmful. Proposals tend to be constructed more for their public relations effects than for their capacity to solve actual problems.

The result is a paradox. This electioneering style of governing strives to bolster politicians' popularity. But it does the opposite. Because partisan rhetoric creates exaggerated expectations of what government can do, people across the ideological spectrum are routinely disillusioned. Because actual problems fester — and people see that — public trust of political leaders erodes.

via Robert J. Samuelson – Both parties fall prey to make-believe politics – washingtonpost.com.

Something else to bring down our republic: If there is an intrinsic disconnect between the political process in a democracy and the necessities of governing, our system of government is doomed. And yet, in our history, there have been statesmen who were effective in both realms. Do you think these are two incompatible vocations?


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