More on subsidiarity

The previous post was intended as red meat for a Thursday, but it prompted some good discussion in comments and I want to respond to a bit of that

Specifically, I want to follow up on this comment from josh, which is thoughtful and well-stated, but hits a sour note at the end:

“It’s once you recognize government as being generally inefficient, and less responsive to the needs of its constituents the further it is removed from them, that you start to think that governmental interference should be the last resort, not the first, and by that point you have become a libertarian.”

Actually, by that point you have become Pope Pius XI.

The above comment is a pretty good description of what Pius called the “principle of subsidiary function” in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Pius was expanding on the ideas laid out 40 years earlier by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum. Both of those encyclicals were expressly written to steer believers between what Catholic social teaching views as the opposite evils of communism/collectivism and laissez-faire/libertarianism.*

Subsidiarity is a key aspect of Catholic social teaching’s critique of both of those extremes. It corrects a major failure of both — the tendency to overlook and exclude every aspect of society other than the individual and the state. That not only fails to account for every other actor and agency in civil society — family, neighborhood, volunteer groups, NGOs, unions, businesses, schools, churches, etc. — but it also distorts the true nature of individual and state, rendering the first as falsely atomistic and disconnected and the latter as falsely monolithic and removed (capable only of “interference”). Both laissez-faire capitalism and communism, in other words, are based on distorted abstractions that cannot account for the actual world we actually live in. Subsidiarity is one approach to correcting that distortion.

Another distortion that subsidiarity helps to correct is the notion that different actors and agencies have exclusive, rather than mutual, responsibilities. The either/or approach to responsibility is advocated by people who complain loudly of inefficient and oppressive Big Government. Yet as josh and Pius and Leo all note, the state bears the responsibility of last resort. Thus when other all other actors have abdicated their responsibilities due to belief in some exclusive either/or notion of their roles, the state, not enjoying the individual luxury of irresponsibility, is forced to take on more and more of those responsibilities. The irony here is that laissez-faire capitalism leads inevitably and inexorably to bigger, less efficient, government.

Subsidiarity is also an immensely practical principle. The notion that the primary (but never sole) responsibility belongs to the smallest, closest possible actor or agency helps to clarify that the primary responsibility of the larger and more distant actors is often that of empowering those closer to the situation to better fulfill their role.

Anyway, I’ve tried to spare readers from slogging through the bookish encyclicals mentioned above by summarizing the idea of subsidiarity in posts like “Who is you?” Allow me to quote a bit from that here:

One of the few places where something like subsidiarity is recognized in American political talk is in the metaphor of the “safety net.” This metaphor recognizes the responsibility of the state in the last resort. When other institutions and actors — families, markets, civic groups, neighborhoods and neighborliness — are fully functioning this safety net will go unused. Yet the state — the government(s) — does not have the option of abandoning its responsibilities just because these others may fail to fulfill theirs.

Libertarians and other reflexively antigovernment sorts tend to worry foremost about an expanding government usurping the rightful roles and responsibilities of these other institutions. (Libertarians, actually, have a fairly thin notion of such institutions — they tend to focus only on atomistic individuals and the federal state.)

While I agree that such usurpation would be a Bad Thing, I think this tends to misread the situation. I think they have it backwards. More often the situation is one in which these other institutions have abdicated their particular responsibilities, abandoning them to the actor of last resort — the state.

Let me go further: where the problem of inefficient Big Government exists here in the United States, it is more often the result of abdication to the state than of usurpation by the state. In other words, where it exists here in America, inefficient Big Government tends to be the direct and predictable result of anti-regulation, anti-government laissez-faire and libertarian-ish ideologies.

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* I’m a Baptist, so I don’t have much use for popes as clerical leaders, but several of my favorite economists also happen to have served as the bishop of Rome. If you prefer a Protestant/Reformed formulation, look into the Kuyperian idea of “sphere sovereignty,” which reaches the same conclusions without the hierarchical baggage of “higher and lower orders” that persists in the papal encyclicals.

  • Augustine

    Hooray for Catholic social teaching! It is by far the most advanced, intellectually rigorous, and well-nuanced economic doctrine in existence today, and yet gets far too little of the spotlight in public debates.
    Oh, and I love the humour of several of my favorite economists also happen to have served as the bishop of Rome , though it is nice to see that the See of Rome, although not its primacy, is apparently accepted by Baptists (or at least by you) …

  • OneFatEnglishman

    Subsidiarity is also, whether by coincidence or not, a recognised principle of the European Union. In this case it is used to mean that the most local level of government capable of a necessary function should carry it out. Obviously this is often honoured in the breach, because it cuts across the traditions of some highly centralised states like France, but still…

  • Tonio

    Bush 41′s “thousand points of light” and Bush 43′s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives have a superficial resemblance to the subsidiarity concept. But both Bushes saw the safety net as replacing government action, the only resort and not the first resort. I know that the Faith-Based Initiatives office heavily favored fundamentalist charities at the expense of even other Christian ones. I don’t know if that was the intention of the office from the start.

  • http://doctorscience.blogspot.com Doctor Science

    One thing that confuses me about the capitalist-libertarian “focus only on atomistic individuals and the federal state” (which I think of as Margaret Thatcher libertarianism) is that it does not mention corporations. I guess libertarians consider corporations as individuals — overlooking the fact that if corporations were human we’d call them sociopaths. Scott is not the only libertarian I’ve known who to be deeply resentful and fearful about government use of force, but who doesn’t seem to notice coercion by corporations.
    The fact that, for instance, the House of Representatives has to work on a Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act to ensure that women can stay in the hospital for at least 48 hours after a mastectomy is an example.
    Do libertarians *not* feel physically threatened & coerced by their medical insurance companies? Do they feel more directly threatened by the government than by these corporations? My personal experience is that both state & federal government agencies are much more responsive and less frustrating than corporations of comparable size: I feel as though I have traction with government that I cannot have with a corporation.

  • cjmr’s husband

    Subsidiarity is inherent in the U.S. federal system — or would be, if Americans didn’t keep throwing it out.
    Education is a good example — it used to be local. The story usually goes “What? Those bureaucrats in the Big City are driving Cadillacs while the buildings are falling down? We must have more oversight!!” followed shortly by “What do you mean, we have to teach evilution??”

  • PurpleGirl

    I have a friend who has always talked of himself as being a libertarian (and a following of Heinlein) and not believing in government-sponsored safety-net-type programs. That was until he was injured on the job and his economic status deteriorated over time. He now gets food stamps and health care from the government. He’s changed how he talks about these programs almost 180 degrees. He thinks that if people can get back to an older, better economic position maybe they should pay the government back but he’s grateful that the programs exist and he gets their aid. (I’ve tried making him understand that he paid for the programs through his taxes for the previous 30-odd years…)

  • PurpleGirl

    And how soon before Scott graces us with a comment?

  • Tonio

    (I’ve tried making him understand that he paid for the programs through his taxes for the previous 30-odd years…)
    Since he’s a Heinlein fan, maybe he used to subscribe to the TANSTAAFL philosophy. He may have believed that anything he received from the government came with a price, such as loss of individual freedom. If so, why wouldn’t he see that taxes are the price?

  • Tonio

    Italics away!

  • McJulie

    I have a friend who has always talked of himself as being a libertarian until he was injured on the job and his economic status deteriorated over time. He now gets food stamps and health care from the government. He’s changed how he talks about these programs almost 180 degrees.
    Kudos to your friend for having the integrity to change his position.
    Most libertarians I’ve known wouldn’t bother. They would just construct some scenario where, in their own personal case, somehow, it was okay to use the government safety net, even though that net is still A Bad Thing. Or they would explain how, if they already lived in the libertarian paradise they dream of, somehow this would have led to them not getting injured on the job in the first place. Or something.
    I once argued a libertarian to the point where she acknowledged that her ideas, if they were actually carried out, would mean that roads were not created with public funding. Later, in passing, I heard her claim that she was against public funding of roads.
    We never had a round two, where she got to explain how only-privatized roads would work, exactly, and all the myriad implications for shipping, transportation, commuting, etc.
    It often seems to me that the primary appeal of libertarianism is that it is a sort of ultimate contrarianism — that’s why it works as a viewpoint for humor (ala South Park) but not so much as a viewpoint for practical governance.

  • bulbul

    Libertarians, actually, have a fairly thin notion of such institutions — they tend to focus only on atomistic individuals and the federal state.
    The late M. Scott Peck recalls in one of his books how when he was young, he read “Atlas Shrugged” and for a while, he was tempted to convert to libertarianism (he calls it extreme individualism or something like that). But being the intelligent person he was and in line with his intellectual habits, he asked himself ‘What is missing from this book?’. The answer was simple: children. There were almost no children in the entire long-ass book.
    The only institution besides state libertarians understand is the think-tank. And judging by the three or four that I’ve the misfortune of dealing with, even those are run as third-world dictatorships.
    I will forward these two posts to all my libertarians acquaintances, hoping against hope…

  • LadyVetinari

    I really like this concept of “Subsidiarity,” Fred. It sums up my view of government exactly: I have a fair amount of libertarian/anarchist skepticism of state power, but I reject the rigid dogmatism that is inherent in a lot of libertarian thought. The notion of government as last resort makes room for anti-state skepticism without completely ruling out the possibility of state action.

  • Lee Ratner

    On one of my newsgroups, another poster pointed out that children tend not to exist in the novels of Ayn Rand. He theorized this was because children represent a group who, for no fault of their own needs, the help of others. The existence of children defeats Ayn Rand’s entire arguement so children do not exist in her world.

  • PurpleGirl

    Tonio — Yes, he did see many things through the lens of TANSTAAFL. But needing aid himself, he came to see that you did need an agency to administer that aid and that, yes, he’d rather it came from a neutral(ish) government rather than something like a church/religion. I just kept reminding him that those taxes he despised so much were why the government could provide society-wide aid.
    McJulie — I’m pleased that my friend was able to change his views and parts of his belief system. He came to accept my liberalism and why I believe so much in a liberal philosophy of government action.

  • Wakboth

    I’m sure this is very petty of me, but how many millionaires, CEOs, industrialists etc. are libertarians? It has always seemed to me that a lot of libertarians are wannabe capitalists, who think they, too, could be the next Rockefeller or Bill Gates, if the government only gave them a break…
    As for the Thatcherian atomism, I think it is equally, if not more, valid to say that there is no such thing as an individual.

  • Keith

    I know that the Faith-Based Initiatives office heavily favored fundamentalist charities at the expense of even other Christian ones. I don’t know if that was the intention of the office from the start.
    Oh, it was. The OFBI was one of Grover Norquist’s ways to shrink the Government to Bathtub drownable size and funnel money into the pockets of GOP backing organizations. Remove the secular safety net and pay Fundies to pick up the service, at an massive increase in cost. That way, you let them do the discriminating for you. Instead of having to let all those undesirables like the “Poor” (black) or Liberals have a chance at using the infrastructure, you take it out of their hands and sell it to gatekeepers who make sure only Good GOP Christians get help.

  • Freeze Rabbit

    Hm. It might be that I haven’t had enough sleep lately, but I’m not quite sure I understand what Scott’s point has to do with Fred’s. I think they’re talking about two different kinds of programs: regulatory vs. safety nets.
    (I tend to be pretty unhappy about unelected regulatory bodies, myself, but social safety nets are something I’m glad for, even though I’m currently employed full-time and doing well at my job.)
    I do wish Scott had answered Doctor Science’s comment about corporations. I’m curious on what his angle on that would have been.

  • scottbot_your_grace

    Finally, Scottbot has been reactivated in pre-emptive mode, gracing this august forum with the observation that Scott’s continual fascination with Liberals(TM) and Taxes(TM and C, thanks to the power of the law as embodied by the fist of the taxman) reveals a certain, hmmm….
    Let’s just say that Scott doth protest too much. ‘If I only had a government sinecure’ could be the theme song of Scott’s future.
    One where Scottbot would be his faithful retainer.
    Kissing a ring is optional – however, the bending of the knee in his majestic presence is mandatory.

  • josh

    Fred, thanks for the response. I found this blog recently (a link to a Left Behind post), and I enjoy your writing (even though, or maybe because, I disagree with you on a fair amount).
    Thus when other all other actors have abdicated their responsibilities due to belief in some exclusive either/or notion of their roles, the state, not enjoying the individual luxury of irresponsibility, is forced to take on more and more of those responsibilities. The irony here is that laissez-faire capitalism leads inevitably and inexorably to bigger, less efficient, government.
    To the point where people use libertarian economic thinking as a mode for social life, then I agree with you. However, I do think that, since these responsibilities are mutual, there should always be a conscious effort by the society’s institutions to spread the power and responsibility around. Of course, it’s not an exact science because it depends on the institutions like the church and community centers to fulfill their responsibilities. Although, and you may disagree here, I think the last 8 years have shown that there isn’t really a fundamental difference between “trusting” the NGOs to engage in charitable work, and trusting the government to act on the behalf of those not employing lobbyists. This leads into something else you said…
    Libertarians and other reflexively antigovernment sorts tend to worry foremost about an expanding government usurping the rightful roles and responsibilities of these other institutions.
    At least for me, I recognize that government may need to temporarily usurp those roles, but that they should be evenly redistributed as soon as possible. The fear is that government will usurp those roles (for example, during the Great Depression), and never relinquish them, eventually ending up with “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”.

  • scottbot_only_good_enough_for_government_work

    Scottbot was not pre-emptive enough. A dollar late, a day short – Scottbot has unfortunately used Bush as his model for proverbial mangling. Not to mention as his model of compassionate conservatism.
    Scottbot craves compassion even more than a boot licking lackey needs a boot (not to get Orwellian about the future).
    However, ‘Compassionate Evangelical Journalist’ without the customary ‘TM’ means that the Original Programmer has finally realized that ‘TM’ is just another tool of oppression, a concept based on the naked power of government to determine what is ‘TM’ and what is not.
    And one that Scott is not entitled to use, unless he TAXES like a government. And treats people just doing it like common criminals against the power of Scott’s mighty ‘TM.’

  • http://accidental-historian.blogspot.com/ Geds

    Hm. It might be that I haven’t had enough sleep lately, but I’m not quite sure I understand what Scott’s point has to do with Fred’s.
    You’ve obviously never met Scott…
    Believe you me, it’s not your fault that you can’t see a connection between Scott’s comments and Fred’s.
    I do wish Scott had answered Doctor Science’s comment about corporations. I’m curious on what his angle on that would have been.
    Stick around for long enough, then wait for the strange gurgling sound. It’ll be your curiousity dying.
    Fortunately, after the curiosity is dead, you never have to pay attention to Scott again.

  • Jeff

    it is nice to see that the See of Rome, although not its primacy, is apparently accepted by Baptists
    One needn’t be part of a group to acknowledge their hierarchy. I recognize Roger [spit] Mahoney as Arch-Bishop of Los Angeles or Mbeke as President of South Africa, even though I’m neither Catholic nor a resident of Johannesburg.
    =======================
    I have a friend who has always talked of himself as being a libertarian until he was injured on the job and his economic status deteriorated over time. He now gets food stamps and health care from the government. He’s changed how he talks about these programs almost 180 degrees.
    Over at “Barrel of a Gun”, I posted a similar story. There are [ex-]libertarians with integrity — I think josh may be one of them.
    ===================
    I had heard that a group of libertarians were going to acquire a small town and run it on Strict Libertarian Principles. I hadn’t heard that it came to anything. I think they ran into all the problems associated with libertarianism and gave it up, while continuing to shout that everyone else should live by Strict Libertarian Principles.
    Found it — Free Town Project (the Wiki article looks like it was written by a libertarian, but I doubt anyone cares enough to fix it).

  • Tonio

    I have a fair amount of libertarian/anarchist skepticism of state power, but I reject the rigid dogmatism that is inherent in a lot of libertarian thought. The notion of government as last resort makes room for anti-state skepticism without completely ruling out the possibility of state action.
    Well said.
    The OFBI was one of Grover Norquist’s ways to shrink the Government to Bathtub drownable size and funnel money into the pockets of GOP backing organizations.
    That’s what I suspected. I was allowing for the possibility of another motive – using goverment to promote fundamentalism.

  • Jeff

    F Rabbit, most of Scott’s posts can easily be filed as “Willful Stupidity”.
    He has NEVER acknowledged any problem with libertarianism, even in posts like this — all problems come from the Eeeeeeeeeevil Gubermnt.

  • Jeff

    To answer Scott’s question, I’d like to have programs acted on effiently and timely. If the recomendations of various engineers had been followed, we the taxpayers would have saved an immense amount during and after Katrina. In the same vein, maintaining Walter Reed would have been less expensive than fixing the problem will be now. A certain amount of consolidation is aloso good, so bureaus and agencies that do the same work aren’t fighting over allocation dollars.

  • http://mabus101.livejournal.com Mabus

    I’d say a substantial number of libertarians are in fact poor people struggling to get by. They don’t see, or don’t care, that their taxes go to some greater good because those taxes are a heavy burden on them.
    Case in point: the temporary tags I have been driving around on are about to expire. I cannot get another set, I cannot afford to pay the seventy bucks that a “permanent” set will cost me (not, at least, for another week), I cannot get to work without my car, and I was recently cited for driving without insurance (which expired while I was jobless), so I expect the cops to be all over me any day now. Though I doubt they will actually use violent force, I will be given the option of paying even more money I don’t have or going to jail.
    Libertarian response (my gut): It’s my car, dammit! I paid for it and I should be allowed to drive it if I need to!
    Liberal response (my guess): Sell your car and rely on your small town’s inefficient public transport and the kindness of strangers. Don’t like the limited options small town life gives you? Move to the smelly, crowded big city where everything costs even more.

  • Jeff

    Liberal response (my guess): Sell your car and rely on your small town’s inefficient public transport and the kindness of strangers. Don’t like the limited options small town life gives you?
    Or you could a) try to find a van-pool; b) push for better mass-transit; explore alternate forms of transport (is a bicycle a viable option?).

  • Nate

    Liberal response (my guess): Sell your car and rely on your small town’s inefficient public transport and the kindness of strangers. Don’t like the limited options small town life gives you? Move to the smelly, crowded big city where everything costs even more.
    Well, this liberal’s response would be more along the lines of trying to set things up so that kind of situation doesn’t happen. Such as the social safety net to provide during periods of joblessness etc. Which doesn’t do much to stop things now, so have you tried talking to anybody down at the county, to see about getting an extension on the temporary tags, or some way of paying for the permanent tags that next week when you can?

  • Froborr

    It has been my experience that libertarians are spread across the economic spectrum, from welfare recipient to robber baron, but mostly concentrated in the upper middle class. They appear to be almost universally white, usually men, and almost always engineers or computer programmers (which, I suspect, is why they are a large percentage of Internet forum-posters while being a rather miniscule percentage of the population).
    However, I have not seen any formal studies on the demographics of libertarianism. I’d love to see one.

  • bulbul

    Freeze Rabbit,
    but social safety nets are something I’m glad for, even though I’m currently employed full-time and doing well at my job
    see, that’s just the thing. Most libertarians/free market [spit gargle etc.] proponents don’t and they even opose such safety nets for what they call “moral” reasons. They claim that having such an option when things go real bad absolves you of the responsibility for your choices and your life. And sometimes they even deny the usefulness of such programs, like this guy I know who had the audacity to insist that “unemployment programs never actually helped anybody”. I had to – figuratively – beat him over the had with a number of statistical reports and some testimonials to make him shut up.
    Those people make me sick. As Froborr pointed out, these are usually successful professionals who take their success (and – in my country – the record economic growth that made it possible) for granted and are fully convinced they deserved every last bit of it. And thus while when I (a liberal rich fucker) see a homeless person on the street, I think “There but for the grace of God goes bulbul” and start fumbling for change, libertarian rich fuckers tell themselves “Now there’s a loser who fucked up his own life, this will never happen to me”. And they sincerely believe it. Why, I will never know and I’m not sure I want to find out.

  • Lee Ratner

    I agree with Froborr’s assessment of libertarians. Most libertarians I ran into are white and middle or upper middle class. Very few are upper class. Most of them tend to be into computers or engineering for a living. A lot of them thing that they would be as rich as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs if it were not for big government keeping them down. Many of them seem to have a tendency towards boorishness.

  • alsafi

    I have a pet theory that (what I think of as) the “engineer” mindset and the libertarian mindset tend to go hand in hand, because the people who have the “engineer” mindset seem to look at the world and think that it’s messy and doesn’t work as efficiently as they would like, and conveniently, here’s a social/economic/political niche which assumes that people are fungible, rational actors in all ways, and that is laid out simply and neatly and efficiently. So they both appeal to some desire to solve problems, but also have your parameters be simple (or at least plainly understood) and somewhat rigid. This is really desireable in programming and engineering, in my opinion, but sucks real bad as social design, since it rather brutally chops off what doesn’t fit into the model, leaving misery in its wake. But if you’re an engineer or a programmer and make pretty good money and never have to look full in the face of the idea that you might be one of the ones chopped off and left to rot, well, it’s an easy and internally consistent (if you leave out all the messy bits, anyway) way of packing the messy world up into a box and not having to worry about it anymore.
    (If I am being incoherent, I apologise. My usual in person explanation involves a lot more talking with my hands, which I’m positive makes everything clearer. ;) )

  • http://doctorscience.blogspot.com Doctor Science

    When I read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as a young’un I figured TANSTAAFL was an argument *for* government regulation, because in the novel “free lunch” includes things like air. If a corporation pollutes the air or water as if it were free clearly *someone* needs to be showing them TANSTAAFL: these are public goods for which they owe the public money. If that’s not government regulation, what is?

  • LL

    This may be an extremely obvious observation, but it seems to me that whenever more than a couple humans (or any creature, really) gather to live in fairly close proximity, there will be some “powers that be,” which go by various names and the only way they differ is whether they’re mostly benign or mostly oppressive. Unless you’re living in a shack out in the wilderness, there’s always gonna be someone “in charge,” who will extract some sort of tribute – taxes, fees, worship, conformity, your comely wenches, a share of your crop, etc. in return for protection from whatever menacing forces there are (human, animal, nature). In a way, Libertarians are (if they really believe what they say) idealists, which is kinda sweet. Foolish and in direct contradiction to reality, but still endearing, sorta. I wish that most people could be counted on to be just and reasonable, but the whole of human history would seem to indicate otherwise. When I vote for someone, I never think I’m voting for some wonderful paragon of humanity who will change everything for the better, I’m basically voting for whoever I think will do the least amount of harm. I wish every govt. were more Libertarian socially – ie, no laws restricting or punishing actions which harm no one. I do think if govt. wasted less money, it’d have more money for the poor, but the poor don’t seem to have as much sway with politicians as the rich people (I feel sure someone will disagree with me on that, but whatever).
    I’ve also decided that if “because it’s the decent thing to do” isn’t a compelling enough reason to help people out, then the only other one that makes sense to Libertarian types is so that people don’t feel they have to steal (esp. from me) or kill (esp. me) in order to survive. Obviously, some people will steal or kill anyway, but if paying taxes reduces those odds, small price to pay, I think.

  • Ian

    where the problem of inefficient Big Government exists here in the United States, it is more often the result of abdication to the state than of usurpation by the state.
    I agree in general, but there’s one big exception — the armed forces. In the US, military spending has gotten to be pretty outlandish, entirely disproportionate to the legitimate goal of preventing a liberal state from being destroyed by foreign invasion.

  • http://exharpazo.blogspot.com/2007/11/tales-of-woe.html Jesurgislac

    Dammit, Scott: a comment linking to your Tale of Woe has been flagged as comment spam! How’d you get Six Apart on your side?

  • http://www.futilecycle.com such.ire

    So, I gotta say this. Not all people who self-identify as libertarians are stark raving madmen demanding near anarchy.
    I think I lean libertarian and capitalist. I do not think that all government programs should be privatized, nor do I think that there’s something inherently, morally wrong with the existence of a government that intervenes. I think that safety nets, if done well, are a Good Thing. Life is random and can be cruel; no one deserves their lot in life, really. My “libertarianism” is more geared towards a streamlined government rather than a minimized one. I don’t want the government gone; it can do good things. But I want the government fit and lean, without the excess pork-fat.
    I think the main problem with Fred’s point is he seems to implicate government as the actor of last resort. But many situations don’t require a last resort at all. I don’t, for example, think that society requires a government to intervene in the NBA with regards to drug testing. Similarly, government subsidies of new sports arenas are ridiculous. Who cares? It’s a frickin’ sports game! Why does New Jersey make self-service gas stations illegal, instead of making full service optional? What, did the gas station attendants fall through society’s cracks? No-bid contracts with “cost plus” clauses are an absolute blight upon the country for obvious reasons. I don’t believe in tariffs, or subsidies to corn and wheat farmers, as those seem completely unnecessary to the public good, which benefits from free trade. That the government has saddled itself with these “responsibilities” is not a failure of other organizations being too hands off; it’s a failure to restrain the scope and role of the government, of making it a last resort when it doesn’t need to be involved at all.
    In an ideal world, all the government would need to do was provide public goods (i.e. correct for market externalities) and enforce contracts. And really, so many things fall under those two responsibilities — things like safety nets, the police, a military, a fire department, the FDA, printing money and standardizing units, and so on. But the government also needs checks to prevent things like rent-seeking, abuses of political power by economic influence, and so on, which wouldn’t be necessary in an ideal world. The government needs incentives to stay small and focused upon its goals of allowing each of us to explore our visions of a good life as much as possible.

  • Majromax

    Re: such.ire
    I don’t, for example, think that society requires a government to intervene in the NBA with regards to drug testing.
    It takes government intervention to allow the NBA to be exempt in the first place. Major league baseball in particular has a legal exemption from antitrust laws, as otherwise a sports league would be quite similar to a cartel.
    Given both the special legal status and societal importance professional sports have in the US, it’s entirely fitting that the government (perhaps not Congress) investigate what amounts to corruption. Congressional hearings post-Enron were appropriate, after all.
    Similarly, government subsidies of new sports arenas are ridiculous. Who cares? It’s a frickin’ sports game!
    Yep. A frickin’ sports game that will bring $millions to the local and state economies in the form of direct commerce, tourism, and merchandise sales. A sports team seeking a subsidy for an arena is no different than a large employer seeking a tax abatement for a new factory — it happens.
    The greater issue there is that large groups can expect direct, preferential tax treatment. Any locale that doesn’t will be skipped over, as it doesn’t really matter which county houses the new Ford factory. It’s a classic economic race to the bottom, and falls under the “unfortunate reality” rather than “ideal action” part of government.
    The government needs incentives to stay small and focused upon its goals of allowing each of us to explore our visions of a good life as much as possible.
    Congratulations, you’re a federalist.

  • http://jesurgislac.greatestjournal.com Jesurgislac

    such ire: Why does New Jersey make self-service gas stations illegal, instead of making full service optional?
    Because, in 1949, when the law was passed, it was felt to be too dangerous to allow random people to pump a flammable liquid like gas.
    I would guess the law has never been repealed in nearly 60 years because the number of voters who enjoy not having to get out of their car to pump gas, outnumber the voters who own gas stations and would prefer to save money by not having to pay a second employee.

  • http://doctorscience.blogspot.com Doctor Science

    Jes –
    IMHO as a NJan the main reason the no-self-service law has not been repealed is that NJ gas prices are just about the lowest in the country. AFAIK our low prices are due to unrelated factors, but it means that NJans do not perceive a significant cost to having someone pump our gas for us.

  • DaveW

    Mabus: My experience with the traffic court judges in liberal Berkeley/Oakland was that they were pretty damn sympathetic to people with financial difficulties who were trying to work out their problems. They routinely gave 50% off to anyone who was able to pay on the day of the hearing. Those who couldn’t pay even that were offered the option of working off their fines on weekends. And that was no matter how many tickets the person had or how much of an attitude problem had led to the tickets. For someone who came in and explained “I couldn’t insure/register my car at the time because I didn’t have the money and I still needed my car to get to work, but now I’ve taken care of the problem,” I wouldn’t be surprised if they would waive the fine altogether. Of course, that’s a more sympathetic position if you are cited while driving to or from work or the grocery story, rather than while out partying with friends or the like.
    I think that’s a better assessment of the liberal position: accept that there are rules that people need to follow as much as possible for the common good, but be willing to bend the rules for people who are trying to follow the rules as best they can, but can’t quite make it for one reason or another.

  • Bruce

    I found the initial post quite thought provoking, because it was one of the few examples I could think of (other than my own beliefs on the subject) of an assertion of the value of an individual moral compass. Most of the loudest voices I seem to hear nowadays only mention that individuality of moral responsibility to either deny that it exists (and cram fingers in ears and scream nonsense when asked to consider the idea seriously), or to acknowledge it only to demonize it as something to be hated and feared. I didn’t think of it as flamebait at all. :)

  • Bruce

    Oh, and one thing that immediately struck me was the deeper similarity between the people you described as unable to understand the nature of reciprocity in compromise between the rights of people with conflicting motives, and the fundamentalists who likewise don’t recognize or understand any sort of principle of reciprocity. They tackle that failure to understand in different ways — the fundamentalists seem to like the strategy of coercing everyone into unanimous lockstep agreement so the *collective* exercise of rights doesn’t run into any inconvenient obstacles — but it’s still a failure to understand that my rights end where yours begin and vice versa, literally and metaphorically. :)

  • Jeff

    A frickin’ sports game that will bring $millions to the local and state economies in the form of direct commerce, tourism, and merchandise sales.
    It’s never been proven that a sports team adds value that other use would. And there’s a vast difference between PetCo Park and the MetroDump ( or between PetCo Park and QualComm Stadium, for that matter).
    Of course, none of this should allow team owners to practice extortion — by threatening to move a team (from a venue built with local funds) if they don’t get a new venue. If these games are such money-makers, have them amortized so they don’t cost the tax-payers anything.

  • http://www.futilecycle.com such.ire

    Sports stadiums have never been proven by any economist to bring money to a city. Most of the time, it’s a drain on the city. Sports stadium subsidies are like the broken window fallacy, in which a boy breaks a window, which brings business to the window repairman, which brings business to the toolman who makes the tools for the window man, to the cobbler who makes shoes for the toolman, etc., when in reality, the money used to repair the window would probably have been put to good use anyway (savings, loans, investment, buying goods, etc.), thus robbing the window-owner of his consumer surplus. The taxes spent on subsidizing the stadium could have been spent by consumers buying the stuff they want, thus bringing in business to the city itself directly (instead of being mandated to do so by the state).
    As for the whole NJ gas prices are so low, etc., presumably the gas prices would be even lower if there was self service. Not only that, but I save time, which is quite valuable to me, if I can just pump my own gas instead of having to wait for an attendant.
    I find it amusing that there are bills being proposed to allow the government to intervene in situations (e.g. drug testing) where they are prevented from intervening by laws (e.g. exemption of sports leagues) which prevent the application of laws which allow them to intervene (e.g. anti-trust laws). Clearly, the government is becoming overbloated in this circumstance.
    I don’t really see federalism as being somehow opposed to libertarianism. John Locke is one basis for federalism, but his philosophy is also the basis for libertarianism, a la Robert Nozick.


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