Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Government: Problem or Solution

I should name this series, "How to be a conservative without being a half-wit or self-serving demagogue?"

Once upon a time, conservatives had a set of legitimate concerns about the nature of government and of individual moral responsibility. Then, it became overrun by a group of people for whom 'evidence' is a four-letter word. It handed its party microphone over to those who were better at rationalization (embracing fallacies and fiction that supported a desired conclusion) over reason.

But it is still possible to express legitimate concerns in the realm that was once called 'conservative'.

One member of the studio audience wrote to say:

You can find the seeds of the GOP's destruction with Ronald Reagan, and his proclamation in the 1981 Inaugural Address: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.

Yet, there is reason to hold that this view is not without merit.

It sounds like a great idea to have a government drug prescription program. However, in the real world, is it really possible to have a drug prescription program that is not written by the drug companies? What starts out in theory as a way to help people who cannot well afford it get the prescription drugs they need ultimately (and inevitably) becomes a program to transfer wealth from society at large to the drug companies – with a little bit going to those in need for the sake of maintaining appearances.

Is it possible to have an energy bill without having it written by the energy companies? In theory, the Department of Energy exists to help to form and implement an energy policy. However, an energy company executive will immediately note that it has the power (and the incentive) to manipulate these policies to channel money from the public at large into its pocket. Again, it needs to produce enough apparent benefit to give the appearance of doing something useful. Every once in a while it needs to publicly slap an oil company’s hand. However, one public hand-slapping can cover hundreds of ‘regulations’ written by oil companies to make its executives wealthier at our expense.

There is an economic problem known as the problem of concentrated benefits and diverse costs.

Let us say that there is a policy proposal that will take $1 from each person in the country, and give $150 million to one person. None of us has any incentive to grumble about this proposal. It’s not even going to make the news. You and I are never going to hear about it.

However, the person who stands to gain $150 million from the proposal will hear about it. In hearing about it, he has an incentive to invest a significant amount of effort into making sure that this proposal is adopted.

He can hire a couple of lobbyists – people who are friends of those responsible for deciding these regulations. People listen to your friends so, if I can get your friends on my side, I have a good chance of influencing you to do what I want.

He can give a few million dollars to a PR firm to design a PR campaign that will help feed the proposal. Again, that PR campaign will not be directed at the general public. It will be designed at getting favorable articles into the professional publications read by those who will have input on these regulations. It will be used to get speakers to the relevant conferences and advertisements into the relevant periodicals and web sites.

If our investor puts $50 million into this campaign, he ends up with a $100 million profit.

Government regulations and departmental budgets are filled with these types of programs – wealth transfer programs that cost each of us a few dimes or a few dollars, that get in 'under the radar', that transfer tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to those who do not need the money. It’s ‘welfare for the rich’, carefully crafted and carefully concealed by people who can afford to hire experts in the game of carful crafting and concealment.

We cannot defend ourselves from every little theft. We simply do not have the resources to tackle these wealth transfer schemes one at a time. The most effective way to do this is to battle these schemes on a wide front – to adopt policies and principles that block huge numbers of these schemes at once. The best way to fight this encroachment is to simply not give government agencies (or legislators) the power to pass these projects. Then, it will not pay these individuals to lobby for them, and we will not suffer the wealth transfer involved in schemes designed to take from the poor and middle class and give to the rich.

The government is not our friend.

The government is the friend of those who have the resources to manipulate and distort its function to their benefit. The better they are at manipulating the government to serve their interests, the wealthier and more powerful they become. The wealthier and more powerful they become, the more resources they have to manipulate the government to their benefit, the wealthier and more powerful they become.

The likelihood that the government will work for you rather than be worked by somebody else for them and against you is proportional to the amount of resources that you have available (and are willing to spend) in manipulating the government.

Yes, it is worthwhile to help the poor and the needy, to provide medical care for the ill and a decent living for the elderly. However, to think that the government can perform these functions efficiently – without its powers being exploited to channel money to those with the power to manipulate the system (with mere symbolic trickles going to those for whom the help was intended) is na├»ve.

So you think it is possible to have a financial bailout program that is NOT written by the financial industry? Look at the list of people who kept their jobs, kept their homes, and kept sufficient money in savings to live comfortably on. Compare that list to the list of people who lost their jobs, lost their homes, and lost their retirement.

Then compare both lists to the lists of those who manipulated us into this mess by manipulating the regulatory process to their advantage, and the list of those made worse off by that same manipulation of the regulatory process.

There is still a good case to be made that the government (and the ability of those with wealth and power to manipulate the nuances of legislation and regulation) is more of a cause of our problems than a solution.

My wish, at this point, is that we had a group of people capable of debating these points who were not half-wits and self-serving demagogues – people of academic and intellectual integrity with a serious interest in looking at these issues with an eye to how to make people generally better off than they would otherwise be. The types of people who appear no longer to be welcome inside the Republican Party.

In fact, and quite ironically, the Republican Party with its devotion to the principles of rationalization, dishonesty, and self-serving manipulation, ultimately allowed itself to become the principle agent for these types of manipulations.


Anonymous said...

Is this necessarily the case -- that the government causes more problems than it solves? If so, then is the solution the dissolution of the government as the anarcho-capitalists would have us believe? Or, is there a way to change the government systems so that they are not prone to cause more problems than they solve? What is the root of the problem? A lack of transparency and accountability? A system of representation that is too motivated by self interest? An uninformed electorate? Are these problems necessarily unsolvable?

Mike said...

I disagree with that conservative rhetoric- Government has solved a lot of problems- just go back 100 years and imagine what your life would have been like. Think about the rights you have, and the general sense of safety. Government has played a significant role in promoting the healthier, freer, and more just society we have today. Moreover, by providing these things to society at large, it has also created the fertile ground for the advancements we enjoy from the private sector.

Historically, the U.S. presents something quite special for the lower classes, that simple citizenship offers entitlement to influence one's governance. It's when our generalized and accountable power is subverted and obfuscated by a minority interest, we face the problem that has plagued humankind throughout history: Unmitigated self-interest pursued against the will of others.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


It is probably not necessarily the case that governments cause more problems then they are worth. Yet, this does not change the fact that they do cause a great may problems.


Scientifically, we have no control group that would allow you to make any sort of reliable claim about what problems governments have and have not solved. All we have is a perfectly good invitation for people to read their own prejudices into the data.

However, though there is a small band of anarchists who will claim that governments do no good, a more straight-forward conservative view is that the government does good when it protects individual rights. It is when the government steps outside of these boundaries that it begins to do more harm than good.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo> "It is probably not necessarily the case that governments cause more problems then they are worth. Yet, this does not change the fact that they do cause a great may problems."

I think I could say this about any large organization. Government may cause more problems than say, Microsoft or Wal-Mart or Exxon or PETA, but we are still left wondering if the solution is to fix those problems, or dissolve the organization.

Government is a large organization run by elected officials to do the bidding of the people. We are the ones who created it, we are the ones who can change or dissolve it. You advocate the latter, many others advocate the former. If you want to persuade people to help you make society better, you'll have to show us why you are right, and the others are wrong.

Since you admit that it's not necessarily the case that government causes more problems than it solves, then it would seem to me that you have lost the persuasion argument. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater, if there are ways to clean the bathwater without doing so?

I would suggest that you could use your intellect to point out the problems, and come up with solutions that work, rather than advocating for the dissolution of (most of the) government. You will influence more people that way, and actually help make this world a better place.

Emu Sam said...


I did a bit of a double take at your comment, then went back up to read the text of the original post. I can see where some paragraphs might make you think that Alonzo is against government. Pointing out the problems with government must mean he's against it, especially since he doesn't go out of his way in this particular post to point out where government is beneficial. It becomes even more difficult when reading immediately prior posts are also about problems with government. However, I think I can safely say that Alonzo is not in favor of throwing the baby out.

Here is an alternate view, also by Alonzo Fyfe (using the search term "public good" which returned many other results).

Mike said...


I think history provides sufficient data that the sort of progress that has made the world a better place has developed within the framework of an established civilization with powerful governance. If you look at the peak cultural, technological, and economic greatness of Ancient Greece, Rome, China, Persia, Renaissance Europe, and most recently the United States, you'll see that those periods are heralded by the establishment of an organized and powerful central government.

Now, as Soviet Communism demonstrates, a powerful government is not a guarantor of progress or good living, but I think it is save to say it is a prerequisite for a society seeking greatness.

Also, for those times and places where power was fractured and governments weak, such as the European Dark Ages, their lack of a lasting cultural legacy provides further evidence to this point.

Gavin Andresen said...

Economists have a pretty good idea about what's important for economic growth. Cribbing from Tyler Cowen's new MacroEconomics textbook, it's property rights, honest government, political stability, a dependable legal system, and competitive and open markets.

Do you need a strong central government to get those conditions? I dunno; my gut say "yes."

I don't think you need a BIG central government to do those core things well, and I think the bigger the government, the more special interests will try to use it to their advantage.

So I'd say: Too much government is a problem. And so is too little...

Alonzo Fyfe said...

No, I am not an anarchist who believes that all government should be abolished. Nor am I a totalitarian who believes that government can do no wrong.

My point in these posts was to argue that there are legitimate conservative concerns that we ignore at our peril. And that it would be nice to have a party not being lead by half-wits and self-serving demagogues to help us to consider those legitimate concerns.

Emu Sam said...


It causes a lot of mental turmoil for me to read your calm and reasoned insults, but unmistakably very strong insults. I wince in embarrassment and breathe a sigh of relief and feel guilty for not doing as much all at once. I can't recall a time when someone could accuse you of ad hominem, when taking all your writings together, because you make it so clear what the insult means and that you intend it exactly as you say it. It makes me want to learn how to be less polite.

Maybe sometimes not so calm.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo -

I have read some more of your blog, so that has put these past 2 posts more in context.

So, as it stands, only a fool would disagree with your primary sentiment:

Alonzo> "My wish, at this point, is that we had a group of people capable of debating these points who were not half-wits and self-serving demagogues – people of academic and intellectual integrity with a serious interest in looking at these issues with an eye to how to make people generally better off than they would otherwise be."

I completely agree with that.

I would like to read some of your thoughts regarding the primary causes of the problems with our current government systems, and what you think some solutions might be. I don't think the solution is to get rid of it, or even major parts of it. So, we are back to square one, it seems. But, at least now we are on the same page as far as realizing the need to fix the problems.