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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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