Thursday, December 09, 2010

A Correction

Quite some time ago I had an exchange on a blog in which I criticized a libertarian approach to some problem or other, noting how poorly the market often does when it comes to accomplishing what people actually want or need. Ben seconded my criticism, but observed that I was much more confident that government could get it right. It has also become clear in my discussions with relatives and others that I am frequently assumed to be an unabashed and undistinguishing advocate for big government.

It has been apparent to me for some time that a correction was needed. Particularly as regards Ben's remark. It's a comment that has eaten away at me for a long time now, since I'm actually very skeptical of government's ability to get things right. This post will hopefully serve as an effective correction. I think it is important for me to say something more about my more "conservative" beliefs about government (conservative isn't quite the right word. Neither is libertarian. If you think you've got the right word for it, please, let me know...). Especially since I am clearly skeptical of our ability to derive norms from the market. I frequently criticize libertarian leanings for their reliance on a terribly flawed hypothetical rational market. It's probably time I give them some credit for their criticism of a terribly flawed hypothetical democracy.
One of the things that most reasonably frightens people is the threat of government overreaching. It will almost certainly never rise to the levels imagined in dystopian fictions, but that doesn't mean the threat is non-existent. One need only consider the recent TSA screening hubbub to see an example of government going too far. Government overreaching leads to inconvenienced passengers, excessive bureaucracy, piles of debt, and an uphill battle in changing the system for the better. That's why I hold pretty tightly to the idea that government should always act in the least restrictive method possible.

I have taken the position in the past that nothing is off limits for government regulation. I argue that government is just a tool that is to be used to make people better. But the fact that government can get involved with a subject area doesn't mean that government should get involved with a subject area. Or that they should get involved in every way possible. Taking the least restrictive means to accomplish the goal is the better course.

Thus, if government can accomplish a goal (say, getting people to exercise and thereby be healthy) by education (public schools teach phy. ed.), then that would be better than taxing the public and paying people to exercise (vouchers for fatties!), which would be better than penalizing people for their weight (fines for fatties!), which would be better than mandating people to report for exercise and arresting them if they failed to do so (prison for fatties!).

Obviously, sometimes multiple approaches would be needed. We educate our kids about the importance of exercise and diet. We also provide vouchers to poor people so that they can afford proper nutrition. We also ban dangerous medical products from ever reaching the market. All of those different approaches have "health" as a goal. The important part is figuring out the least restrictive way for government to achieve a result. A course in "dangerous medical devices" isn't going to go too far in preventing those dangerous devices from harming people. A more restrictive approach than education is needed. Likewise, delivering a set of rations and forcing a menu on poor people is more restrictive than food support programs. We don't need to go that far, since the less restrictive method will accomplish the goal too.

It's not a particularly difficult concept, but it's an important one. And it's one that I firmly embrace. I have no problem with government action, provided government is acting in the least restrictive fashion possible to achieve the goal.
The corrupting influence of power is another of my largest concerns about government. Let's face it, politicians are crooks. Not all of them, not all the time. But lots of them, and far too frequently. And I don't mean literally crooks. But I mean people who at times use their power and influence for causes that don't actually serve the public. An elected official might honestly be trying to make life better for people 99.9% of the time. But that .1% of the time that they're not, that's a problem.

For example, I routinely read a column that criticizes minor public officials for using taxpayer money to hire armed guards and police escorts. Even state and local politicians, who frequently wouldn't even be recognized and face no cognizable threat, spend from public coffers to have guards "protecting" them. The real reason for these guards is usually 1 (or both) of 2 purposes: either to keep dissenters away from the official or to make the official feel important. There's no real security threat, so the money is a waste. That kind of corruption is a disservice to the public. Even if the official is truly dedicated to making life better for others and does an amazing job in every other facet of their job, if they're spending public money on unnecessary things for themselves, that's a problem. Government as it's currently set up frequently enables this kind of waste.

It provides a measure of relief to remember that our system is purposely designed to be cumbersome; checks and balances keep any single individual from gaining too much power, thus helping to address corruption. But checks and balances only go so far. They slow down the system, limiting the amount of corruption that makes it through. Unfortunately, this also makes it a lot harder to do something about the problem of corruption when it actually exists (And good luck getting corrupt officials to deny themselves something!).

More importantly though, the checks and balances don't actually address the problem of corruption itself. Gridlock limits the damage but doesn't remove the cause. This is something I'd like to see changed in our system. I would like checks in place on individuals in power, to keep them focused on effective service, not reelection and political games. Admittedly, this is less about government size and more about government accountability. But to my vision, government accountability goes a long way to reducing the problems that exist with government size (and an accountable government is one that shouldn't grow where it doesn't have to, thus cutting size too).

There are a couple of specific steps that I think would be useful to addressing the problems of government corruption.

First, you need to limit the power of those elected. The larger the body of representatives, the easier that is to accomplish (but the more unwieldy the elected body becomes). That Athenian, pure-democracy, model is a pretty high ideal. Obviously it wouldn't work on a national level, but perhaps it could be emulated more closely on a local level.

Second, more politics should happen at the local level. Or at least, more election/implementation should happen at the local level. For example, we have a federal program that helps people who can't afford it pay for housing. This is a good program. It drastically reduces the number of homeless people in our country, provides a stable environment for children and families, funnels money to small businesses (landlords), etc. But there's a huge regulatory regime in place to administer the program. You pretty much need the regulatory regime (you need local implementation, regional management, federal oversight, etc.), but that leads to very little local accountability. The elected officials appoint a federal director, who appoints (hires) regional managers, who appoint local managers, who appoint local workers to implement the program.

If you get a corrupt individual at the local level, who, say, refuses to help minorities, or refuses to follow the law, it can be very challenging to address the problem. That person, despite being a government employee (in fact, because they are a government employee) has very little accountability to the public. The local worker is too far removed from the elected officials. But if rather than all that top-down appointment we had more local oversight, then perhaps those local workers would be more responsive to the public and we could avoid or address individual corruption. It's not the easiest approach in the world, but it might be better than what we've got now. Local politics allows for better corruption control.

Third, it isn't just politicians and government workers who mess up the system with their corruption. It's also influential citizens and corporations. Far too many of our laws are designed by the influential and are anti-competitive by nature. There is also a wide class of laws that are not directly anti-competitive but that, by imposing a requirement on an industry, ultimately turn out to have an anti-competitive element to them. The very recent food safety bill is a good example. It required farmers to do a lot of various tracking and paperwork to ensure that the food they're selling is safe. Factory farmers had no problem with these extra requirements because they will be a bigger challenge for their competitors than they will for the factory farmers. The big guys can handle the additional responsibilities and spread the cost out over a wider base. The little guys have more trouble. And thus, in an anti-competitive spirit, the big, influential guys support these kinds of laws.

The solution isn't to just get rid of the laws altogether. After all, things like food safety are important. The solution is to accommodate the little guys, and re-set the market equality. Fortunately the food bill took the path of exempting smaller farmers from the requirements. Depending on the circumstances, charging big guys or subsidizing small guys could also be workable solutions. The point is, however, that the law is susceptible to influence that can be used to distort the market. That's part of the problem with relying on the market - it gets distorted. But it's also part of the problem with relying on government - it can distort. We can use government to help markets work or help them fail. Keeping a close eye on that is important.

This brings us somewhat naturally to another of my biggest concerns with government regulation: the unintended consequences. It happens far too frequently that a law meant to do one thing ends up meaning that something else happens, either instead of or in addition to the intended consequence. Really good ideas and laws can be marred by unforeseen effects.

The proper solution is consistent review. After a law is passed, how are people responding? After it gets enacted do they change their behavior? Are new problems caused that weren't there before? Review and reassessment are essential to addressing unintended consequences.

Of course, once we've reviewed and reassessed we also need to respond. If there are unintended consequences, what changes in the recently-enacted law could avoid those consequences? If they can't be avoided, can their effects be mitigated in some other fashion? Do we need to add more or take more away in order to fix the new problem?

It isn't an easy task. This requires the legislature to continually come back to the areas they just got done dealing with. But that's how the system should work. I don't care if the legislature is burned out on talking about an issue... they need to get over that and tweak what they've passed.

When a law is first passed it should be seen as a hypothesis: "We think law X will have effect A." Figuring out whether that hypothesis is true requires empirical analysis. Is effect A actually happening in the real world? Is there also effect B which counteracts the benefits of A? If so, we need to find a new hypothesis; an amended law.

Most of what I've discussed here are problems with government that have been identified time and time again. They're problems that can't be denied. I don't have faith in government as-it-is to get things right, because these problems are real and they aren't adequately addressed in our current system. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying though. That doesn't mean we should give up and trust a market that also doesn't work. It just means we need to find the answer for the challenges.

To my mind, there is really one good answer for the problems: an active citizenry. More people getting more involved in government is going to lead to more watchful eyes, more noses to the grindstone, and more helping hands. Again, in some ways, this is the Athenian model, wherein all citizens aren't just given freedom to participate in government, but are actually duty-bound to participate, usually in important ways. Getting people to take the business of government seriously gets us a much better government, which gets us much better results.

Sloth is the biggest challenge facing government. People are lazy. We don't hold people accountable because it takes a lot of work to do so. We don't revamp laws that have unintended consequences because it takes a lot of work to do so. We don't level the playing field because it takes a lot of work to confront the influential. We don't have a working government because it takes a lot of work to keep one.

I have hope that someday we'll make our way towards a system in which an educated and active citizenry participate in government, participate in holding officials accountable, participate in evaluating and amending laws that need correction, participate in a government that does as much as it needs to but doesn't overstep its bounds. I have faith that such a world is possible not because I have confidence in government, but because I have faith in people.

I have confidence in sunshine

I have confidence in rain


Beau said...

I think sloth is only part of the equation, with the other being fear. To paraphrase George Carlin,
the rich keep all of the money. The middle class does all of the work. And the poor are there to scare the shit out of the middle class and keep us showing up at our jobs and cow-toeing to the rich and powerful.

Mike N said...

What do you think would happen to the judicial process if each law also had to contain a written hypothesis? Would that affect the way judges interpret the law? I can imagine it would have a big impact on today's legal scene if, say, the 2nd Amendment also noted what problem it was intending to solve.

Ben said...

Did you actually start this post, in part, because of something I said? Man, you must have been thinking about this for a long time. Because it's been a looooooooooooong time since I've commented on anyone's blog.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Good reference Beau.

Good question Mike... I think it might actually be really useful to courts.

Ben - Absolutely you prompted this post. It's been waiting for like a year. I'm guessing you're familiar with having something you want to write and just not getting around to it...

Matthew B. Novak said...

Ben -

Does this help clear up my views?

AGJ said...

As in family you are always mine and I am in your court and corner. As in politics, we circle the square and rarely end up in the same corner. I am trying to respond to this from my same corner while circling your post.

In terms of deriving norms from the market, the market has been diluted by PAC's infiltration into the legislative and executive branches. As the judicial branch is more tucked away, we cannot put it under the microscope (other than the appointment process).

From what I can understand, the truly 'free' market is less about demands and more about supply. In a static market manner, we could see norms as they develop. However, our current market has been infiltrated by too many obstacles. Thank you for giving this credence.

As for your example of gov't overreaching and the TSA, you are ignoring the one flaw. It is not the inconveniencing of passengers (the rest are symptoms of the problem); it is the unabashed disregard for liberty of the free markets to maintain a service - as well as the customers to choose a flight without the interference of beauracratic nuisances.

As for the government (Federal I presume) being a tool to make people better, I question this. The (fed) government should have little say in these matters. What constitutes a person 'better' than the next? BMI? ACT/SAT scorings? Wealth Consumption? Wealth Attainment? Height? Pay-per-hour? Health Coverage? Legal Discrepancy? Moral Behavior? Motor Vehicle Registration? Lightness of Skin (MJ won). Retirement?

Government (Fed) should not be involved in any of these matters. Bar none. If a situation crosses state lines and there is a discrepancy, then they (judicial) should weigh in to decide on the least restrictive or best applicable measure.

As for your example of 'vouchers for fatties', let the insurance companies take care of it (much like the auto and life insurance companies grade scales). Why does the government need to be involved unless they truly have a vested interest (and they DON'T in a free market).

I am not going to address the rest of the posting at this time. You are covering too much in this post and I need to go to bed.

As for how to 'place' you from what I have gathered - you are not either libertarian or conservative. You still remain in the liberal sphere as you expect so much from the fed government. In fact, I would put you on par with Amy Klobuchar or Mark Dayton; you could win as a DFL candidate from the Iron Range.

I will not stigmatize you with the brand of an 'Al Franken'. You are not crazy and you don't have a degree from Harvard (thank God).

AGJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew B. Novak said...


n terms of deriving norms from the market, the market has been diluted by PAC's infiltration into the legislative and executive branches.

Yes, this is one of my complaints. But your implication seems to be - (and correct me if I'm wrong... I don't want to put words in your mouth) - that if the market hadn't been diluted then we could reliably derive norms from it. Is that what you mean to imply? I reject this. An undiluted market has all sorts of failures and problems that it is still an unreliable gauge of rational preferences.
As for your example of gov't overreaching and the TSA, you are ignoring the one flaw. It is not the inconveniencing of passengers (the rest are symptoms of the problem); it is the unabashed disregard for liberty of the free markets to maintain a service

Do you mean to suggest that we should let the private market provide security? That the government should even get out of the business of protecting its citizens?

What constitutes a person 'better' than the next?

All of the things you listed and more. Having the very debate about what makes a person better is part of what makes them better.

Government (Fed) should not be involved in any of these matters. Bar none.

Whoa. This statement is so far out there as to be approaching anarchy.

Why does the government need to be involved unless they truly have a vested interest.

The response, of course, is to pose to you the question: what is government? Government is people. It's peoples' way of organizing and regulating and educating and all of those other functions that government enables. And since people have a vested interest in every aspect of their lives, so too does government. The goal of government is to make people better. Sometimes people are going to achieve that without using the tools made available through government. Sometimes they'll need a little assistance. Sometimes they'll need more. And we always have to be careful to make sure government is actually achieving that result - helping people with the things it is trying to help them with - and if it isn't achieving that result we should amend or ax the government approach.

But yeah, government is about people. It's an attempt to make our lives better. We use it because we have a vested interest in ourselves. Conceiving of the government as some sort of body-aside-from-people is a false understanding. Where people have an interest, then so too does government.

aaron said...

Matt -
I think you missed AGJ's point about the Federal Government. When he said"Government (Fed) should not be involved in any of these matters. Bar none. If a situation crosses state lines and there is a discrepancy, then they (judicial) should weigh in to decide on the least restrictive or best applicable measure."

One does not need to look much further than the 10th amendment to find this. I believe it says something like: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

I think that means that the Fed's should have very little say what goes on in our lives. We live in states, and should be governed by the state in which we live. Unless, we are visiting another then we will governed by their laws.

If the people of MN want to have a higher standard of education, living, or healthcare, then that is their right. The federal government has no say in those matters.

I think a lot of your posts about government are based on the federal, which, according to the constitution, has very little power.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Ah, I think you're right. He did include the (Fed) line. Of course, this position kind of begs the question. My whole post was about using the least restrictive means possible, and sometimes that's going to be federal and sometimes that'll be state and sometimes local. For example, we have a single federal rule about free speech, that grants that right. Lots of states have tried to reign in speech, but it gets struck down. So sometimes federal powers are actually the least restrictive means to accomplish a goal.