FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Reflections of a Big Government skeptic
I think liberty is a genuinely fascinating concept, far more difficult in execution than concept. Just about every American would nod enthusiastically if asked whether liberty is a good thing. (A dismaying portion of the remaining Western world would not agree reflexively that liberty is an absolute good, whose preservation is the highest duty of lawful and just governments.) The Founding Fathers of the United States did such a good job of crafting the Constitution that it reads like a declaration of obvious truth, the sort of thing humanity should have noticed a thousand years ago… which, of course, was the point of the exercise, since the task at hand was to recognize the God-given rights of every citizen.
But before I became a student of liberty, I was a skeptic of Big Government. I didn’t have any particularly traumatic experience that set me on a collision course with the centralized State. I don’t have any built-in animus toward people who work for the government, many of whom I’ve gotten to know personally over the years. I don’t even think politicians are reptilian as a class. They are shaped by their careers, just like everyone else.
It’s the system they work in that I came to view with great suspicion, because once the principles laid out by the Founders were trampled – a process that began over a century ago in earnest – the system that developed had certain behavioral characteristics I find entirely predictable. Individual people are a delightfully unpredictable lot, but people acting in concert are shaped by both opportunity and restraint. Take away the restraints, and the pursuit of opportunity becomes intoxicating.
Interestingly, this is a criticism socialists usually level at capitalism, but it’s far more applicable to the pursuit of political ambition by the unlimited State. Modern American government is an almost perfect example of how the Left describes evil corporate enterprises. Among other things, both the government and sinister corporations really love setting up anti-competitive environments, but the power of the former is indispensable to the task. Anti-competition is a priceless resource Big Government sells to Big Business. If you understand the nature of both beasts, their commerce becomes entirely unremarkable.
Above all else, what makes me skeptical about Big Government is our inability to withdraw consent from what it does. ”The consent of the governed” was a big deal for the Founders, and a radical concept for a world that tended to view people as the divinely ordained subjects of their sovereign. The idea of refusing or dissolving government power in a peaceful manner was strange, perhaps understandably so for an era in which far-flung empires – lacking modern communications or transportation technology – relied upon a strong sense of loyalty to hang together. But here came this bombshell idea that righteous government relied on the consent of the governed, making the State forever subordinate to its people.
Now, even with modern communications tech, you can’t very well run a government that completely falls apart whenever some portion of the people decide they’ve had it. The only reasonable way to reconcile the need for stability with the demands of individual liberty is to devolve power to state and local governments, making it possible for citizens to withdraw their consent in a peaceable, orderly fashion.
This introduces the vital element of competition to government. I don’t believe excellence can ever be achieved without competition. I’m frankly surprised that so many people are willing to believe our central government can work efficiently – even better than private industry! – without a shred of competition. If I can’t walk away from a deal, how hard is the other party going to work to keep me? If cell-phone companies sold only unbreakable lifetime contracts, how intensely would they compete, knowing there was no way to poach customers from one another? If such a company actually did offer you an unbreakable lifetime contract, would you even briefly consider it – and if so, wouldn’t you expect it to be sold for an extremely steep discount compared to traditional agreements, recognizing the immense value of the consent you can never withdraw? What freedom is worth as much as the freedom to walk away?
Competition is the real democracy. Voting in elections every couple of years, or even voting on single-issue binding referendums, is no substitute for the dozens of votes we cast every day by making competitive choices. Competition is the practical expression of economic liberty in every respect, for both customers and aspiring providers. Reduce competitive pressure and quality declines while prices rise.
Eliminate competition and you have the federal government.
Another reason I’m skeptical of Big Government is that it has a built-in appetite for power, and it satisfies that appetite not by winning and maintaining high levels of approval, but by suppressing dissent. You’ve got to be highly motivated, and organize with a good number of like-minded citizens, to get Uncle Sam’s attention. Aggressive political organisms have the advantage, and the methods they use to stay aggressive have a tendency to turn ugly. Hatred, envy, contempt, entitlement… these are the tendons and ligaments that hold political muscle together. Fellow citizens become enemies, rather than competitors. The best way to defeat these enemies is to make them feel guilty and ashamed to stand up for their rights. You can win a political battle handily with a highly motivated 30 percent of the electorate, if you can keep the other 70 percent from getting organized… especially if you’re trying to persuade Big Government to do something it wants to do anyway.
I’m skeptical of Big Government because I’ve been told all my life that I can’t accuse its righteous defenders of greed, but I know damn well they’re greedy. Actually, I’m not really comfortable with judging the legitimacy of other peoples’ ambitions… but that’s what activist government is all about. People who never did anything wrong are subjected to the crushing power of the State because their rights are subordinated to the claims of others, as validated by a political class that skims handsome personal profit off the top of every redistribution transaction. They grow very upset when accused of having anything but impossibly pure motives.
On the other hand, try marching into a corporate boardroom meeting and accusing them of being hungry for more profits and market share. The answer, after an exchange of puzzled glances, will be: “Well, yeah. Of course we are.” That doesn’t necessarily mean you should praise whatever else you hear in that boardroom, but at least they’re being honest with you about their ultimate motivations, and you’re allowed to talk about them honestly. Failure to use the approved euphemisms when discussing the Ruling Class or its preoccupations can get you in a lot of trouble.
With the right to withdraw consent secure, competition leads naturally to a process of persuasion, rather than compulsion. (Using fraudulent information to trick people into granting their consent is a form of compulsion, which we rightly expect the government to punish.) And this persuasion is individualized. Oh, the boys in the marketing department love to convince people to try their products by saying all the cool kids are using them, but it’s still up to me to decide if I want to drink the allegedly favorite beer of fashion models with perfect body-fat levels. Every good capitalist should be skeptical of corporations. It makes you a more discriminating customer, which can only improve capitalism. Every business should compete hard for its sales. Every sale should be the Super Bowl, played against a tough defense of informed customers.
You might have noticed that Big Government, in its end-stage Obama-era pre-heart-attack bloat, is not all that interested in persuading people any more, especially not once it thinks the political equation has been solved to its benefit forever. If if you got a raw deal through ObamaCare, you don’t count; Obama wants you to shut up while he parades a few hand-picked happy customers on stage and declares the whole thing a roaring success. Push ObamaCare apologists hard enough, and they’ll eventually tell you that your personal sacrifice was necessary to create a system that benefits more deserving people. That’s not persuasion. They don’t care what you think. They only want to keep you from organizing and gathering the political strength necessary to shut down their trillion-dollar racket. It’s not the first time the discontented have been given the back of Big Government’s flabby hand, and it won’t be the last.
It’s not fair to characterize libertarians, fiscal conservatives, or Tea Party activists as “haters” of the government. On the contrary, they revere the lawful functions of the State, whose power is absolutely necessary for the protection of individual rights and the preservation of orderly, productive society. There is no trace of vibrant, healthy liberty to be found in a state of anarchy; you keep only what the local warlord doesn’t feel like taking from you.
And there you have another good reason to inherently distrust Big Government: the extra jobs it eagerly takes on, to feed the ambitions of the Ruling Class, distract it from the jobs it’s supposed to be doing. That’s why the people who claim they can manage the health care of 200 million people also say they can’t possibly keep tabs on 10 million illegal aliens. They’re not interested in doing the latter job. They most certainly will not compromise any other part of their agenda to address sworn duties they find inconvenient or distasteful. The government is especially keen to avoid getting drawn into situations where success and failure can be objectively measured with hard data. They want to work on endless social-justice crusades where failure means they should be given more money and power, so they can try harder. Big Government writes its own to-do list.
I don’t believe there is any way to “fix” that mind-set. It doesn’t matter all that much who you elect to run the system. Presidents come and go; congressional careers run for decades; the bureaucracy is eternal. And the only way for today’s politicians to control the behavior of their successors is to drop gigantic loads of debt on them. Only spending commitments are honored from one congress and Administration to the next; promises of restraint are worth less than the wind behind their words. It’s laugh-out-loud funny to hear the latest “tax hikes now for spending cuts later” deal proposed with a straight face, not just by people who should know better, but by politicians who lived through the last few broken deals. The only thing this Congress can do that will bind its successors in 2015, 2017, or beyond is crank up the baseline for spending programs, secure in the knowledge that future efforts to scale the size of government back will be treated as “vicious spending cuts.”
This is a system designed to do nothing but grow, forever and ever, no matter how poor its performance. I don’t trust it. It was a horrible mistake to let it grow as large as it has. It can defend itself now, very capably. It’s got us on the defensive, perpetually justifying the continued exercise of liberties that were never supposed to be up for discussion. I’m not confident of the people’s ability to win defensive battles against the Leviathan State, not with a growing number of their fellow citizens riding on its back and egging it on. I see no happy ending in a system designed to obscure its costs from a sedated populace that has no idea what it’s taking from them. I’m nervous about how the alternative to government action is almost always portrayed as inaction rather than liberty. And I’m not really surprised by any of it.