This post incorporates three earlier installments and completes the series.
When the Framers of the Constitution began the preamble with “We the People” and spoke as if the Constitution had been submitted to “the People” for ratification, they were indulging in rhetorical flourishes (at best) and misleading collectivization (at worst). The Founders may have been brave and honorable men, and their work — as long as it lasted — served liberty-loving Americans well. But do not forget that the Framers were politicians eager to sell a new framework of government. They were not gods or even demi-gods. They served liberty ill when they invoked the idea of a national will — expressed through government. Their coinage lends undeserved credence and emotional support to the rhetoric of statist demagogues, a breed of which Barack Obama is exemplary.
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I make two basic points in this very long post:
1. It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.
2. Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.
Continued below the fold.
1. THE WRONGNESS OF “WE THE PEOPLE” (AND SIMILAR CONSTRUCTIONS)
A friend, in an e-mail exchange that he forwarded to me, wrote this:
Yes, we are getting the government quality we deserve.
We sent the same leadership back to the executive and legislative branches a year ago after they showed us they can’t do the job together.
I then sent this to my friend:
Almost 50 percent of the persons who voted in November 2012 are not getting the country they deserve. Lose the “we.”
And followed up with this:
“We” would be just as inappropriate if Romney had won. There is no “we.” There’s “me,” “you,” and a bunch of other citizens with a wide range of views and preferences. And I don’t “deserve” the fruits of others’ preferences.
I have this “thing” about “we” — as you can see. It comes of my firm disbelief in social arithmetic. My favorite way of putting it goes like this: When John is forced to give money to Joe, Joe’s added pleasure doesn’t cancel John’s pain, social engineers to the contrary notwithstanding. In other words, there’s no such thing as a social-welfare function. So I steadfastly refuse to accept the proposition that I (me, personally) “deserve” what Obama has wrought.
My friend persists, to this day, in invoking “we” — as in “Americans in the aggregate” and “Americans opted for” more government. I’ll come back to the second phrase when I get to point 2. As for “Americans in the aggregate,” and other invocations of the collective, I could repeat what I said in the quotation above, but it seems that I must drive the point home. So here goes.
I’ll begin by asking how Americans can be aggregated. It’s true that hey can be counted (approximately), that their incomes can be added (approximately), and so on. But can the likes and dislikes of Americans for a particular policy be summed in a meaningful way? If Joe, for instance, wanted Obamacare to become law (having studied it inside-out and accurately assessed its ramifications, I’m sure), would his desire somehow cancel my equally informed disdain for Obamacare?
Only in a nominal way that doesn’t diminish my disdain (and that of millions of others). For example, both Joe and I might be residents of the same congressional district, and both of us might cast our votes for House candidates based solely on their stated positions for and against Obamacare. But even if our votes cancel because Joe votes for the pro-Obamacare candidate and I vote for the anti-Obamacare candidate, our preferences remain unchanged. That is, Joe is happy because his candidate won and voted for Obamacare, which became law (for now). And I am unhappy because my candidate lost and Obamacare became law.
But Joe’s happiness doesn’t assuage my unhappiness. The formal mechanisms by which persons are elected to Congress, elected to the presidency, and laws are made do not (in themselves) change the preferences of individuals. (There are, of course, some impressionable persons who change their minds — if that had minds in the first place — in order to be on the winning side: the bandwagon effect.) The fact that a bill is approved by a bare majority of both Houses of Congress and signed into law by the president does not alter my view of the law nor (in most cases) the views of millions of other Americans. “We” did not enact the law. Elected officials did that, and they did it against the wishes of millions of Americans.
The same kind of analysis applies to every other issue that is decided in the councils of government. That is why debates have raged, and will continue to rage, about issues ranging from the FDA’s ability to restrict the supply of drugs to the establishment and operation of Social Security to the establishment and operation of Medicare to the myriad regulations that affect the design and manufacture of almost everything that is offered for sale in the United States. I could list more examples, but you should by now be willing to acknowledge that there is no kind of national consensus or “will.”
If you still think of “we the people” who somehow think and act collectively, what do you make of elections, where voters tend to choose sides based on what they think or hope the parties stand for — more government (or no reduction in it) as against less government (or no expansion of it). Consider, for example, these facts:
- Since 1856, when the Republican Party was founded, no candidate of either major party has ever won more than 61 percent of the popular vote for president.
- Since Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984 with 58 percent of the popular vote, no candidate has won more than 53 percent of the popular vote.
- Republicans won only 20 percent of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936; in 8 of the 10 general elections held from 1994 through 2012, Republicans won more than 50 percent of the seats.
- Since 1990, Democrat candidates for governorships have won between 37 and 59 percent of the popular votes cast for gubernatorial candidates; Republican candidates have won between 41 and 57 percent. (Third-part candidates account for the “missing” votes.)
If there is an “American psyche,” it has multiple-personality disorder.
What do you think when a snobbish European generalizes about Americans — a bunch of crude, gun-toting, money-grubbers? Do you think that such generalizations are correct? You probably don’t. And if you don’t, why would you think (or speak and write) as if Americans are like ants, that is, of one mind and collectively responsible for the actions of government? If, for example, you were an especially outspoken critic of the War in Iraq, you might have been one of a large number of Americans who issued an apology to Iraqis for the actions of the U.S. government. (You probably also hoped that your apology was noted by Europeans, whom you think of as an undifferentiated mass of beings superior to Americans, yourself excepted.) You did not consider yourself part of an American consensus in favor of the war; clearly, there was no such consensus — no “national will” to wage war.
There’s no need to look abroad for inapplicable generalizations about America. A lot of conservatives believe that liberals harbor evil intentions, and vice versa. It is true that some conservatives have long-lasting friendships with liberals, and even marry them. But liberals and conservatives have been known to come to blows because of their political differences. In any event, conservatives and liberals have been separating themselves from each other. Only a cock-eyed optimist — the kind of person who believes that living in the same (very large) geographic requires unity — would call this a bad thing. As if proximity yields comity. It doesn’t work for a lot of families; it doesn’t work for most blacks and whites; it doesn’t work for upper-income and lower-income groups. Why should it work for most conservatives and liberals?
There are many other ways in which Americans are divided against one another: by race, by economic status, by taste, by religion, and by geographic region. I am not referring just to differences along such lines, but to the fact that such differences are often the proximate cause of (or excuse for) dislike, enmity, and even violence. Where’s the “national will” in all of that?
But aren’t “we all in this together,” as proponents of big and bigger government are wont to proclaim? Not at all. The notion that “we are all in this together” is just a slogan, which really means “I want big and bigger government” to “solve” this or that problem — usually at the expense of persons who have done nothing to create the “problem.” “We are all in this together” is a call for action by government, not proof of a mythical “national will.” If “we” were “all in this together,” we wouldn’t need to be reminded of it. Like a good sports team or military unit, we would simply act that way.
I understand that it is easier to write “we” than to write “a bare majority of voters” or “the government, pursuant to a law that was narrowly approved by Congress has decreed thus and such.” But writing as if Americans have a collective mind and will supports that false idea that Americans do have a collective mind and will. And that idea, in turn, leads to the view that the growth of government must be what “Americans” wanted in the past and still want.
It seems that there may be a genetic deterrent to the kind of “togetherness” that is presumed in such locutions as “We the People.” This is from the abstract of a paper by Casey A. Klofstad, Rose McDermott, and Peter K. Hatemi, “The Dating Preferences of Liberals and Conservatives” (Springer Science+Business Media, July 2012):
American politics has become more polarized. The source of the phenomena [sic] is debated. We posit that human mate choice may play a role in the process. Spouses are highly correlated in their political preferences, and research in behavioral genetics, neuroscience, and endocrinology shows that political preferences develop through a complex interaction of social upbringing, life experience, immediate circumstance, and genes and hormones, operating through one’s psychological architecture…. Consequently, if people with similar political values produce children, there will be more individuals at the ideological extremes over generations….. Using a sample of Internet dating profiles we find that both liberals and conservatives seek to date individuals who are like themselves. This result suggests a pathway by which longterm couples come to share political preferences, which in turn could be fueling the widening ideological gap in the United States.
Later in the paper, the authors discuss their methods and results:
What influence might this pervasive ‘‘like seeks like’’ tendency have on ideological polarization over time? To address this question, we conducted a simulation which estimates the change in the population variance of political ideology due to assortative mating on political ideology…. [W]e created generations of pedigree data (i.e. transmission of ideology from parents to children) through genetic, environmental, familial, and any other social or environmental source of transmission. That is, the program simulates individuals meeting, mating, and having offspring, who in turn meet, mate, and have offspring, for many generations, until the parameters in the simulation (i.e. estimates of the various sources of transmission) reach equilibrium.
In order to define the population structure at the start of the simulation, we rely on a real population assessed for ideology that is also one of the most extensive published data sets on parent–child, spousal, sibling and in-laws correlations for political attitudes, the ‘‘Virginia 30,000’’ (see Eaves et al. 1999)….
[W]e do not know exactly when spouses began to assort on ideology to such a high degree, however, we cannot know for sure where to place our current generation within our polarization simulation. For example, if we consider each generation is born around every 25 years, and assume assortation on ideology began in the 1960s, when studies first began to report high levels of spousal assortation in the modern political climate, and individuals assorted on ideology at the current rate, we should witness significant increases in polarization after only 2 generations, which would be around the present day (i.e. sometime between 2010 and 2020)….
More specifically, with increasing rates of female higher education, men have the opportunity, and perhaps motivation, to meet and marry women of higher education and earning potential, an option that was rarely available to most men a century ago. Likewise, as men and women meet within the context of higher education, political ideology may matter more in aligning preferences than in past environments where the male wealth-for-female beauty exchange dominated the mating trade (Bryan et al. 2011). It could also be that as women became more incorporated into the political system after gaining the right to vote in 1920, political preferences may have become a more important aspect of the courting process. Prior to this time, women’s political views were unfortunately largely ignored, and as such their political opinions may not have entered into the mating process. However, to the extent that such political values correlated with some of the other trait characteristics spouses assorted on before women’s suffrage, it remains possible that their views may still have indirectly affected prospects for assortative mating, especially through the operation of informal marriage brokers who matched on factors such as race or socio-economic status. Otherwise said, as the basis and opportunities for mating shift, the effects on offspring ideology may become more pronounced. Even if such effects remain subtle, systematic shifts of small percentages can swing elections.
An interesting hypothesis and provocative findings. But whatever the cause or causes of political polarization, it seems clear that Americans are more divided than they were, say 50 years ago — if not more divided than they were in 1861.
This divisiveness — which has become geographic as well as ideological — is bothersome to the believers in “America as one big community.” Two of them, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing, wrote a book about it: The Big Sort. And Bishop maintains a related web site, where he has posted some maps which support the view that there has been a significant amount of political sorting in recent decades.
Other evidence of ideological sorting along geographic lines is seen in electoral maps of the 1976 and 2012 presidential elections, where the popular-vote splits were almost identical in favor of the respective Democrat candidates, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Ignoring the favorite-son effect that swung the South to Carter and Michigan to Ford in 1976, one can see rather striking differences between 1976 and 2012; for example: the Northeast has become much more heavily Democrat since 1976; the Left Coast is no longer close, and is now solidly Democrat; except for Colorado the States of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains have become more strongly Republican.
Another person who finds the Big Sort disturbing is Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who wrote Bowling Alone:The Collapse and Revival of American Community– a lament for what Putnam sees as the demise of “America as community.”
Ironically, Putnam later published a paper which shows that greater togetherness — in the form of “diversity” — isn’t necessarily a good thing. In “The downside of diversity,” at The Boston Globe, Michael Jonas reported on Putnam’s “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century.” Putnam, according to Jonas,
has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.
Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”…
Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness….
Rhetorical flourishes like “We the People,” “the will of the people,” and “the national will” are nothing more than empty phrases meant to garner support for coercive state action of one kind and another.
The fact of the matter is that Americans are more divided than ever. It is a fact that I celebrate because it makes it all the harder for statists to work their will.
2. HOW GOVERNMENT GROWS, CONSIDERABLE OPPOSITION TO THE CONTRARY NOTWITHSTANDING
Government has grown, no doubt about it. But it has grown despite the wishes of a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority of them), and not because “Americans on the whole” prefer more government.
The risibility of that assertion is evident in the widespread opposition to (a) legal efforts to modify or eliminate a “woman’s right to choose” an abortion, and (b) the “war on drugs.” In other words, most Americans (I think it safe to say) only want government to do things that they like. Further, most Americans (I also think it safe to say) don’t like to pay government to do things that they don’t value (i.e., provide services and subsidies that they don’t receive). And, further, most Americans don’t understand that getting the things they want from government requires them to also pay for the things that others get from government.
There is a large group of Americans who generally favor more government to less of it. They are called, variously, “liberals,” “progressives,” and “leftists.” I’ll call them leftists and be done with it. Aside from wanting more government, there’s something else that most leftists seem to want: smaller armed forces. That is, they want more government as long as it’s the kind of government that they prefer. They don’t simply want more government. And inasmuch as the armed forces are part of government, it’s safe to say that a large fraction of (most?) leftists would prefer less government (measured in dollars) if they could exchange every dollar of defense spending for, say, 50 cents of spending on domestic programs. Moreover, it is safe to say that most leftists wouldn’t want the additional domestic spending to include enforcement of anti-abortion or anti-marijuana policies.
Having made my point — in a general way — I could end this post here. But I won’t. I must address “social insurance” schemes and the administrative state — the stuff for which Americans supposedly have a great and undiminished appetite.
How is it that “social insurance schemes” have grown and become almost sacred to most Americans? How is it that the administrative machinery of the federal government (augmented and implemented by State and local governments) has grown from the regulation of railroads (the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887) to the regulation of (quite possibly) every commercial product and service used by Americans and American businesses — and the regulation of much non-criminal personal behavior? How can these things have happened despite considerable opposition to the initiation and maintenance of “social insurance” schemes and regulatory strictures?
Several related influences are at work:
1. Nirvana fallacy –This is a quasi-religious habit of thought, in which an idealized future is compared (favorably, of course) with present reality. The idealized future may revolve around marriage, child-bearing, higher education, a new job, a promotion, or some other life event. All too often, however, it revolves around government, which is claimed (and hoped) to have the power to convert money into perfect solutions to “problems.” I put “problems” in quotation marks because often the “problems” to which taxpayers’ dollars are applied aren’t really problems, aren’t really problems that are within the legitimate remit of government, or aren’t problems that government can solve better than or as well as private actors. In fact, many so-called problems, as I’ll point out, are the result of government efforts to solve “problems.”
A salient example of a non-problem is the so-called crisis in health care that led to the passage of Obamacare, without the benefit of a single Republican vote in Congress and against the wishes of a majority of Americans (according to at least one reputable poll). (So much for the “national will.”) I have discussed this phony crisis elsewhere (e.g., here), so I won’t repeat myself. What I will point out here is that government — in this case, as in so many others — has delivered a clunker instead of a racing machine. Consider Megan McArdle’s indictment of the federal health-care exchanges, through which uninsured persons are supposed to obtain insurance under Obamacare:
Exactly how bad are things on the federal health-care exchanges? The working assumption among most journalists, including me, is that they would be fixed in a few weeks — that is, by the end of this week. But yesterday’s New York Times brought a deeply reported piece from Robert Pear, Sharon LaFraniere and Ian Austen….
– One person familiar with the project says it’s only about 70 percent of the way there, and has heard estimates of somewhere between two weeks to two months to fix it…. When I used to hear estimates like that, I used to assume it would be coming in on the late end of that range, earliest.
– Despite evidence to the contrary, the administration kept insisting that everything was absolutely on track to launch Oct. 1.
– This passage is so extraordinary that it requires excerpting:
“Deadline after deadline was missed. The biggest contractor, CGI Federal, was awarded its $94 million contract in December 2011. But the government was so slow in issuing specifications that the firm did not start writing software code until this spring, according to people familiar with the process. As late as the last week of September, officials were still changing features of the Web site, HealthCare.gov, and debating whether consumers should be required to register and create password-protected accounts before they could shop for health plans.”Suddenly, two months sounds optimistic.
And on and on.
But — the true believer in government will protest — that’s just one example, and surely the private sector couldn’t have done any better. After all, private-sector contractor were used in setting up the exchanges.
Back to McArdle:
Insurers began warning in 2012 that they were worried about these systems making their delivery dates, a concern that the Government Accountability Office echoed in June. Now we know why: The systems weren’t on track to meet their delivery dates….
[M]aybe it’s one of the vendors — CGI, the firm with the largest contract, is the most favored target, but at various times, the administration has clearly been teeing up to blame Experian or Oracle. Or perhaps the fault lies in federal procurement rules, which prevented the government from getting the right kind of staff and service. A lot of that shows up in the article; there’s a long prelude about the political barriers that the administration faced. But ultimately, the litany of mistakes that the administration made overwhelms these complaints….
My best guess is that by the time HHS officials realized that they hadn’t left enough time, the only possibilities were: 1. Ask Republicans for a delay; or 2. Launch a not-very-well-built-or-tested system upon an unsuspecting public. No. 1 would have been unpleasant for several reasons. Obviously, it would have been a huge political black eye. Republicans would probably have responded by joyously agreeing to a delay — of a year or more, which would either mean launching right before the 2014 elections or possibly never launching at all. Administration officials weren’t going to put the president’s signature achievement at risk that way….
In the private sector, this system would already have been rolled back, probably less than 48 hours after it was rolled out.
Obamacare is a government operation. Private contractors merely dance to government’s tune.
It’s amazing that so many Americans are invested in the Nirvana fallacy with respect to government, given the many reasons they have to doubt the wisdom and efficacy of government; for example: trigger-happy cops; inept (and often unwise) war-fighting; money-losing operations like USPS; officious, clock-watching bureaucrats who can’t be fired; the widespread failure of public schools to educate (especially to educate the very minorities whose inherent intelligence is proclaimed loudly by the leftists who run and teach at public schools); and innumerable instances of waste, fraud, and abuse. You can add your own favorites to the list. I’ll just add this, from an earlier post:
[W]hat drives government spending is not the welfare of the American public. It is cupidity, ego, power-lust, ignorance, stupidity, and — above all — lack of real accountability. Private enterprises pay for their mistakes because, in the end, they are held accountable by consumers. Governments, by contrast, hold consumers accountable (as taxpayers).
Government actors — politicians and bureaucrats — have a vested interest in maintaining the fiction of an all-wise, all-beneficent, all-efficient government. And so they keep pushing the Nirvana fallacy. And too many Americans keep falling for it.
There is, undoubtedly, broad support for certain aspects of government, but that support is driven by the Nirvana fallacy. This is a fallacy that the denizens of government do their best to sustain through their ability to mount PR spectacles and with the very great assistance of their statist allies in the media, public schools, universities, and the entertainment industry.
2. Unrepresentative government–Look no further than Obamacare for an egregious example of unrepresentative government. As noted above Obamacare became law without the benefit of a single Republican vote in Congress and against the wishes of a majority of Americans (according to at least one reputable poll).
The government of the United States — the power of which has grown far beyond the bounds envisioned by the Framers — can make laws that are opposed by a majority or sizable minority of the populace. This is a condition that is applauded by proponents of “majority rule,” as long as they feel represented by the majority. But such instances of despotism only underscore the disconnect between acts of government that aggrandize government and the wishes of large portions of the populace. In fact, “representative” government is not and cannot be representative when persons of broadly differing views are “represented” by a person who often is elected by less than a majority of adults, and who is attuned to a small segment of those views. Majority rule — where majority means a majority of those voting in an election or legislative body — has nothing to do with representation and everything to do with forcing the many to bend to the wishes of the not-so-many.
And there are influential bodies called courts, where unelected officials decide consequential matters by themselves or by majorities like 2-1 and 5-4. Thus Obama and Democrats were emboldened to enact Obamacare because the Supreme Court, especially since the New Deal, has endowed the central government with powers that cannot be found in the text or original meaning of the Constitution. The opinions of the Supreme Court — often rendered following a 5-4 split among the justices — can hardly be said to represent the “national will.”
Or consider the vast, unelected bureaucracy of the central government’s executive branch, which has been endowed with legislative power because too many members of Congress have been willing to abdicate their constitutional duty to make the laws. Can anyone possibly believe that rules made by a federal agency represent the “national will” or a consensus for more government? Yet more than 20,000 pages of such rules are added every year to the mountain of rules that govern the lives and livelihoods of Americans. It is such rules that require homeowners to obtain special permits before they tamper with puddles on their property; it is such rules that enable the Food and Drug Administration to delay, for months and years, the availability of beneficial drugs; it is such rules that enable the Equal Employment Opportunity Office to require employers to prove to the satisfaction of biased, low-level bureaucrats that they aren’t guilty of discrimination of one kind or another; and it is such rules that enable the Internal Revenue Service to issue subsidies to some who purchaser health insurance through a federal Obamacare exchange, in direct violation of the (partisan) law that created Obamacare.
There’s also a phenomenon called regulatory capture. This happens when a regulatory agency advances the interests of the industries or groups that they are charged with regulating. Even where there’s a majority of citizens in favor of regulating something, I doubt that the majority wants the regulations to be written to favor the regulated entities. But regulatory capture is inevitable in an administrative state, and a bigger administrative state will carry with it more regulatory capture. I doubt that many leftists think of it as a manifestation of the “national will.”
All of the foregoing examples, though mostly about the federal government, typify goings-on in the States and in municipalities throughout the land.
In sum, it’s fatuous to suggest that most acts of government represent the will of a majority of adult citizens, let alone the “will of the people.” Absent such a will, the idea of a general preference for more government is incredible.
3. Logjams and log-rolling — Ronald Reagan’s presidency offers examples of these phenomena. Reagan’s inability to roll back the federal bureaucracy can be attributed to the fact that Democrats controlled the House (by large majorities) throughout his two terms. Also, Reagan had to make concessions on the domestic front in order to get what he wanted on the defense front. So, even if a majority of Americans wanted less government (or less domestic spending) — as evidenced by the election and reelection of Reagan — they couldn’t have it because of the realities of governance.
4. Fiefdoms and egos — Government isn’t a bloodless monolith. It comprises real people — cliquish, venal, ambitious, power-lusting people. People in government, for the most part, don’t care about abstractions such as liberty, what they care about is their part of government — preserving it and enlarging it and increasing its influence. Why? Because they identify with it. It’s what justifies a good bit of their lives, and for many it’s a stepping stone to bigger things, in and out of government. History, as it is written, honors those who “do something,” not those who walk away from power and influence.
So, no matter the “mood of the country” (or a large portion of it), there’s always pressure from within the bowels of government to make it bigger. This pressure is magnified by legislators, who are supposed to represent the citizens of their home districts and States, become enamored of the bureaucracies that they are supposed to oversee, and become “champions” of this and that increase in spending and enlargement of power. And the price of garnering support for their pet programs? Supporting the pet programs of their fellow legislators.
5. The ratchet effect and the interest-group paradox — The status quo is taken for granted as a floor on the cost and power of government. A leading example is the deference of courts, the U.S. Supreme Court in particular, to precedent. (See stare decisis.) Almost all court rulings in the last 80 years have had the effect of increasing the power of the central government. It started in earnest during the New Deal, most notably with the the Supreme Court’s grant of unlimited power to control commerce (see United States v. Carolene Products Co. and Wickard v. Filburn, for example), and with the Supreme Court’s declaration that Social Security was constitutional (see Helvering v. Davis). From there, it has been all downhill, as the minions of the central government (aided by the Court) pile power on power to micromanage (badly) the economic and social affairs of Americans, and to impose on them the “European” cradle-to-grave programs so avidly desired by effete elites.
The interest-group paradox amplifies the ratchet effect. Pork-barrel legislation exemplifies the interest-group paradox in action, though the paradox encompasses much more than pork-barrel legislation. There are myriad government programs that — like pork-barrel projects — are intended to favor particular classes of individuals. Here is a minute sample:
- Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, for the benefit of the elderly (including the indigent elderly)
- Tax credits and deductions, for the benefit of low-income families, charitable and other non-profit institutions, and home buyers (with mortgages)
- Progressive income-tax rates, for the benefit of persons in the mid-to-low income brackets
- Subsidies for various kinds of “essential” or “distressed” industries, such as agriculture and automobile manufacturing
- Import quotas, tariffs, and other restrictions on trade, for the benefit of particular industries and/or labor unions
- Pro-union laws (in many States), for the benefit of unions and unionized workers
- Non-smoking ordinances, for the benefit of bar and restaurant employees and non-smoking patrons.
What do each of these examples have in common? Answer: Each comes with costs. There are direct costs (e.g., higher taxes for some persons, higher prices for imported goods), which the intended beneficiaries and their proponents hope to impose on non-beneficiaries. Just as importantly, there are indirect costs of various kinds (e.g., disincentives to work and save, disincentives to make investments that spur economic growth). (Exercise for the reader: Describe the indirect costs of each of the examples listed above.)
You may believe that a particular program is worth what it costs — given that you probably have little idea of its direct costs and no idea of its indirect costs. The problem is that millions of your fellow Americans believe the same thing about each of their favorite programs. Because there are thousands of government programs (federal, State, and local), each intended to help a particular class of citizens at the expense of others, the net result is that almost no one in this fair land enjoys a “free lunch.”
The price of your “free lunch” is that you must pay for all of the other “free lunches” enjoyed by millions of your countrymen. That’s how government works. (See #2, #3, and #4.)
6. Centralization of power — This is a particular manifestation of the ratchet effect and interest-group paradox. Power has been passing to Washington for more than 100 years, in defiance of the Constitution, because of all of the foregoing effects: the Nirvana fallacy, unrepresentative government, logjams and log-rolling, fiefdoms and egos, and the ratchet effect and interest-group paradox. Thus Washington is able to exert its power on the entire country, bringing big government to places that don’t want it.
State and local governments have created bureaucracies to enforce Washington’s edicts. Those bureaucracies take on lives of their own, and become dispensers of largesse to various voting blocs. And so (for reasons discussed in #4 and #5) it is almost impossible to shrink State and local governments. And when the good times roll and tax revenues rise, State and local governments usually expand to meet the “needs” of their bureaucracies and interest groups — and on and on.
7. Captives in our own land — I’ll borrow from myself again, and adopt an appropriately normative tone.
Law comprises the rules that shape and circumscribe behavior. Law in the United States is mainly an amalgam of two things:
- social norms that have not yet been undermined by government
- governmental decrees that shape behavior because they (a) happen to reflect social norms or (b) are backed by a credible threat of enforcement.
Law — whether socially evolved or government-imposed — is morally legitimate only when it conduces to liberty; that is, when
- it applies equally to all persons in a given social group or legal jurisdiction
- an objector may freely try to influence law (voice)
- an objector may freely leave a jurisdiction whose law offends him (exit).
Unequal treatment means the denial of negative rights on some arbitrary basis (e.g., color, gender, income). As long as negative rights are not denied, then a norm of voluntary discrimination (on whatever basis) is a legitimate exercise of the negative right to associate with persons of one’s choosing, whether as a matter of personal or commercial preference (the two cannot be separated). True liberty encompasses social distinctions, which are just as much the province of “minorities” and “protected groups” as they are of the beleaguered white male of European descent, whose main sin seems to have been the creation of liberty and prosperity in this country.
Law is not morally legitimate where equal treatment, voice, or exit are denied or suppressed by force or the threat of force. Nor is law morally legitimate where incremental actions of government (e.g., precedential judicial rulings) effectively deny voice and foreclose exit as a viable option.
But (as discussed in #6) governmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have usurped social norms. The expansion and centralization of power occurred in spite of the specific limits placed on the central government by the original Constitution and the Tenth Amendment. These encroachments on liberty are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal adoption has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, liberty-loving Americans have discovered — too late, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water — that they are impotent captives in their own land.
Voice is now so muted by “settled law” (e.g., “entitlements,” privileged treatment for some, almost-absolute control of commerce) that there a vanishingly small possibility of restoring constitutional government without violence. Exit is now mainly an option for the extremely wealthy among us. (More power to them.) For the rest of us, there is no realistic escape from illegitimate government-made law, given that the rest of the world (with a few distant exceptions) is similarly corrupt.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1774,
Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematic plan of reducing [a people] to slavery.
Having been subjected to a superficially benign form of slavery by our central government, we must look to civil society and civil disobedience for morally legitimate law. Civil society, as I have written, consists of
the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa…. [Civil society is necessary to liberty] because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for government to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism).
That is civil society. And it is civil society which … government ought to protect instead of usurping and destroying as it establishes its own agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions.
When government fails to protect civil society — and especially when government destroys it — civil disobedience is in order. If civil disobedience fails, more drastic measures are called for:
When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup. (Thomas Sowell, writing at National Review Online, May 1, 2007)
In Jefferson’s version,
when wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality.
* * *
The Social Welfare Function
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Is Statism Inevitable?
A New, New Constitution
Fascism and the Future of America
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
The Near-Victory of Communism
A Declaration of Independence
The Shape of Things to Come
Accountants of the Soul
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A Conversation with Uncle Sam
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
Undermining the Free Society
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Government vs. Community
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
A Declaration of Civil Disobedience
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Externalities and Statism
Taxes: Theft or Duty?
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Don’t Use the “S” Word When the “F” Word Will Do
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Genetic Kinship and Society
How Not to Cope with Government Failure
Is Taxation Slavery?
America: Past, Present, and Future
Restoring Constitutional Government: The Way Ahead
“Conversing” about Race
Economics: A Survey
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
The World Turned Upside Down
Government Failure Comes as a Shock to Liberals
The View from Here