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Why the Size of Government Matters:

In his inaugural address, President Obama said that "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." This is a commonly heard argument in response to concerns about the growth of government. Who could possibly be against government when it "works"? Why not instead consider each proposed expansion of the state on a case by case basis, supporting those that "work" and opposing any that don't?

Taken seriously, this argument leads to the rejection of any systematic constraints on government power. Why should we have a general presumption against government regulation of speech or religion? Why not instead support censorship when it "works" by improving the marketplace of ideas, and oppose it when it doesn't? Think of all the misleading speech and religious charlatans that government regulation could potentially save us from! The answer, of course, is that government regulation of speech and religion has systematic dangers that are not unique to any one particular regulation. Given those systematic flaws, it makes sense to have a general presumption against it.

The same holds true for government intervention more generally, including in the economy. It too has systematic flaws that justify a presumption against it. Three of those flaws are particularly relevant to current policy debates.

First, government officials have poor incentives relative to the private sector. Because the resources they spend are not their own money, they are more likely to waste them or divert them to favored interest groups. These poor incentives are visible in almost every major government spending bill, where large amounts of money are spent on porkbarrel projects and the like. The current stimulus bill is no exception, with its handouts for a variety of interest groups.

Second, as I have often emphasized in my academic work and on this blog, the quality of government policy is severely compromised by widespread voter ignorance. The majority of voters know very little about public policy and make poor use of the information they do have. Voter ignorance and irrationality are perfectly rational, because the chance that any one voter's knowledge will make a difference is infinitesmally small. Still, they routinely result in voters supporting flawed policies and doing a poor job of evaluating the performance of elected officials. For example, they blame politicians for bad weather, and routinely support protectionism despite the overwhelming evidence against it. The dangers of voter ignorance are likely to increase as government grows. The bigger government gets, the more of it there is for voters to monitor, and the more difficult it will be for them to have even a superficial knowledge of all its functions.

Third, even relatively well-informed voters and well-intentioned government officials will often lack the information they need to allocate resources more effectively than the market would in their place. As F.A. Hayek argued in his classic essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," government planners lacks the kind of information that the price system routinely provides to market participants. Thus, they usually have no way of knowing whether the projects they want to spend tax money on will yield benefits that outweigh their costs.

These systematic shortcomings of government are particularly dangerous in times of crisis, like the present. Given widespread voter ignorance and their own perverse incentives, government officials often use crises to justify harmful expansions of government power by selling them as emergency measures - even if they have little or no real connection to the emergency in question. This is why White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel says that "[y]ou never want a serious crisis to go to waste" because it is "an opportunity to do things you could not do before."

The current spending bill before Congress is no exception. It is being marketed as a "stimulus." Yet only 8% of the new spending will occur this year, and only 41% in the next two years - too late to provide stimulus while the recession is still ongoing. This suggests that most of the new spending isn't really about stimulus and has more to do with other policy priorities that are being misleadingly sold as emergency measures.

These points don't prove that all government interventions are undesirable. It is possible for them to be outweighed by other considerations in any given case. They do, however, show that there is reason for systematic concern about the size of government, and for a strong but not insuperable presumption against its expansion. In the same way, we have good reason for a presumption against government regulation of speech and religion, even though that presumption cannot be absolute. We can, for example, ban shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, yet still have a general rule against censorship.

To put it in Obama's terms, our society will "work" a lot better if we can prevent government from getting too big. And that requires paying a lot more attention to the state's rapidly expanding waistline than the president wants us to.

UPDATE: I should have noted that the 8% figure is for the percentage of spending in the current fiscal year (which ends September 30), rather than calendar year. I don't think this difference of three months is critical, but I do want to correct the error.

John (mail):
There is an inevitable and eternal pressure within any organization to expand itself. If even a small percentage of the government's expansion efforts are successful, then, over the long run, the government will win enough encounters with its citizenry to be overwhelming.

I don't know any way to stop this process. Perhaps some form of term limits, or limitations on fund raising by the government coupled with some sort of balanced budget. But neither will ever happen, so we are left with an entity that is certain to expand indefinitely.
1.31.2009 1:07am
NTB24601:

Yet only 8% of the new spending will occur this year, and only 41% in the next two years - too late to provide stimulus while the recession is still ongoing.

I'm not sure how you calculated those percentages. According to the CBO Estimate that you linked:

Assuming enactment in mid-February, CBO estimates that the bill would increase outlays by $92 billion during the remaining several months of fiscal year 2009, by $225 billion in fiscal year 2010 (which begins on October 1), by $159 billion in 2011, and by a total of $604 billion over the 2009-2019 period.


By my calculations, that means that the percentage in 2009 is $92 / $604 = 15.2%.

The percentage by the end of 2010 is ($92 + $225) / $604 = 52.5%.

Am I making a mistake in my math here?
1.31.2009 1:31am
Randy R. (mail):
Slow down, Professor! I think you are parsing and reading too much into one sentence.

I believe that what Obama is trying to say is that he rejects the traditional stances of both left and right: The right which says that gov't isn't the solution, it's the problem, and the left which advocates gov't intervention to solve all our problems. We have learned, he is saying, that neither is correct all the time.

There are times when government does work. We needed more, not less, government regulation of the mortgage markets that led us into this mess. We need less, nor more government intervention, on business so that it can grow and provide wealth and jobs. But we still need government regulation to make sure our food is safe. But we don't need it so much that it drives up costs unnecessarily.

Of course, we can and will argue over the specific instances when government is working or not, but I think it is hopeful that Obama is willing to reject tired old party stances in favor of a new approach. Time will tell if it works.
1.31.2009 1:34am
Elliot123 (mail):
For most things, it's useless to ask if government works. We can probably always make a case that it works. Once we say that, the next question is to identify the sector of society which works best at a particular task. Efficiency and effectiveness.

Five hundred guys with teaspoons work when digging a foundation. So does a one guy with a backhoe. Which works better?
1.31.2009 1:42am
Ilya Somin:
I'm not sure how you calculated those percentages. According to the CBO Estimate that you linked:


Assuming enactment in mid-February, CBO estimates that the bill would increase outlays by $92 billion during the remaining several months of fiscal year 2009, by $225 billion in fiscal year 2010 (which begins on October 1), by $159 billion in 2011, and by a total of $604 billion over the 2009-2019 period.



By my calculations, that means that the percentage in 2009 is $92 / $604 = 15.2%.

The percentage by the end of 2010 is ($92 + $225) / $604 = 52.5%.

Am I making a mistake in my math here?


The figures you cite include the tax cut provisions as well as the spending ones. The ones I cite (which are on pg. 3 of the CBO document) look only at the spending part, since only that part is relevant to a post criticizing expansions of the size of government.
1.31.2009 1:50am
Ilya Somin:
I believe that what Obama is trying to say is that he rejects the traditional stances of both left and right: The right which says that gov't isn't the solution, it's the problem, and the left which advocates gov't intervention to solve all our problems. We have learned, he is saying, that neither is correct all the time.

I agree that that's what he's saying. But I also think it is wrong because there is in fact good reason for a general (though not absolute) presumption against expanding the power of government.
1.31.2009 1:52am
John Moore (www):
Thanks for the well reasoned article. You are clearly correct. A governing philosophy that does not require government size to be limited will result in perpetual government growth, with all the negatives of government decision making magnified (including those specified by the Laws of Bureaucracy).
1.31.2009 2:03am
JB:
Obama's statements about making sure things work have to be seen in context. What Ilya is saying is that, given reasonably good goals, more government won't achieve them. What Obama is saying is that government should do what it tries to do. Whether the government doing it is better or worse than the private sector doing it, Obama is promising to actually do it.

The Bush administration's policies were rarely very effective at their stated goals--the only real achievement was preventing another 9/11 on U.S. soil, and (a) whether any act of the administration was responsible for that is up for doubt, and (b) our allies Britain and Spain would have words with us as to the success of that in general. Obama is promising to do better on that score, not on Ilya's. (For my prediction, I think both will be right--government will get substantially more effective over the next few years, but not as effective as the private sector would have been had it tried its hand--the trick, of course, is getting it to do so).

In larger terms, we need a conservative to say what Obama is saying. Of late, conservatives have run government, when they were in charge, as if it didn't matter if it accomplished anything--the private sector is better, so government spending is a waste, therefore what can't be cut can be tossed around uselessly. What we need is for someone to support a limited role for government within which it is and must be effective, and to put as much stress on making it work as on making it small.

To analogize, Obama thinks government is carbs, the Republicans have tended to agree--but favor the atkins diet, and what we really need is someone who thinks government is vitamins. Don't forget to take some, they're essential in small quantities, but don't overdose and remember to eat your free market veggies.
1.31.2009 2:06am
Dave N (mail):
Well said, Randy R.

We don't often agree but I think your post was spot on.
1.31.2009 2:12am
Franklyn (mail):
Excellent post, Professor. My biggest frustration as a state agency middle manager was fighting public policy decisions from "on high" that were unnecessary, harmful, wasteful, petty and stupid. Hmmm. Did I leave anything out? Nope.

Randy R. We needed more, not less, government regulation of the mortgage markets that led us into this mess.
I note you are stiving for balance, but is there not a case to be made that less legislative tampering with loan qualification issues in earlier years, no matter how well intentioned, might have resulted in need for less mortgage market regulation now?

I, too, hope our president is patient and prudent as he goes about making policy decisions. Yes, time will tell.
1.31.2009 3:29am
theobromophile (www):
I think I stopped reading the inaugural address after that sentence; it's terribly irksome in that it marginalises (unintentionally or not, as per Randy R's thoughtful comment) a lot of Americans who have legitimate questions about the size, role, and efficacy of the government.

A fourth problem with any expansion of the federal government is diminished representation (related, in some ways, to the second problem). No matter how big the federal government is, we still only vote for people in the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. That's it. Invariably, those branches can only do so much; already, they outsource the bulk of their work to administrative agencies, which are not accountable to the people. So even if we are to assume a rational, passionate, and involved group of voters, it wouldn't matter much; the connection between the people on the ballot and the people spending the money is far too attenuated to make any difference.

That all said, it reveals what appears to be a difference between liberals and conservatives: the latter group believe (as Prof. Somin outlined above) that bad principles will lead to bad results, in some form or another, whereas the former believe that principles have little or no intrinsic value. To some of us, the question about the size and role of government is intrinsically linked with questions of its efficacy in certain roles; we're not "cynics," as Obama suggests, but believers in the law of unintended consequences.
1.31.2009 3:34am
BGates:
We needed more, not less, government regulation of the mortgage markets that led us into this mess.

We needed better, not more, government regulation. It's not hard to imagine more regulation taking the form of requiring provision of loan documents in the top 75 most common languages in a state, requiring banks to hire in proportion to some demographic characteristic, making mortgage brokers watch a videotape series on ethics, etc etc etc. If you mean we needed more regulators watching for illegal acts, sure, but we could have obviated much of the need for that by removing the mirage of quasi-governmental agencies willing to back every housing-related bet in America and letting everyone know they were in fact risking their own money. When you set up a market where crime pays you will get crime, as sure as Tim Geithner's the Treasury Secretary.

Besides, there's real disagreement over what it means for government to work. Suppose the construction work that's to be funded by the most defensible 15% of the stimulus bill comes in under time and budget - but most of the salary money is paid to white guys, is that a success? Robert Reich would say no. If we can get 3% unemployment but it takes $0.75 gas to do it, would that be workable? Not according to the majority party.

Anyway, Obama's a bright guy. I'm sure every penny of the trillion he's demanding will be put to better use than if it were left in the undeserving hands of the people who earned it in the first place.
1.31.2009 4:36am
AlanDownunder (mail):

To put it in Obama's terms, our society will "work" a lot better if we can prevent government from getting too big. And that requires paying a lot more attention to the state's rapidly expanding waistline than the president wants us to.


This has been a concern for at least the past 8 years. Welcome aboard, Ilya. Such a pity the flab was deficit-financed, too. Trouble was, one man's muffin was another's oiled and pumped biceps.

There was also concern about the size of an ungoverned non-bank financial sector, but now government is being sucked into the vacuum it left behind. Times like this are why the presumption is rebuttable.

We've seen ample bloat and idiocy recently, public and private, when leanness and efficacy were needed, so I'd ditch presumptions. What to do and how to do it is always sui juris. I'm hoping Obama agrees.
1.31.2009 5:25am
hattio1:
Professor Somin says;

The answer, of course, is that government regulation of speech and religion has systematic dangers that are not unique to any one particular regulation. Given those systematic flaws, it makes sense to have a general presumption against it.


Isn't that another way of saying that government regulation of speech and religion don't work? I mean, I think your real dispute with Obama is you think government regulation of a whole bunch of other stuff besides speech and religion don't work. He thinks government regulation of many more things work. It seems like the disagreement is over the definition of "work" rather than a real disagreement about supporting government when it works.
1.31.2009 6:03am
David Welker (www):
Somin is just making excuses to support his own biases.

I want to go over the three justifications that Somin gives to justify his presumption against government.

(1)

First, government officials have poor incentives relative to the private sector. Because the resources they spend are not their own money, they are more likely to waste them or divert them to favored interest groups. These poor incentives are visible in almost every major government spending bill, where large amounts of money are spent on porkbarrel projects and the like. The current stimulus bill is no exception, with its handouts for a variety of interest groups.


Whether the government or the private sector has better incentives to accomplish a particular goal depends on the goal. The private sector has no or very little incentive to provide things like public or national parks or public schools or national defense and other goods that all citizens have access to regardless of income.

It seems quite clear to me that we need both private and public goods. The private sector has more incentive to provide private goods efficiently (if you have enough money to buy them) while the public sector is the only sector with incentives to provide public goods which can be utilized by all citizens regardless of income.

One again, this is nothing more than a sloppy generalization. It is interesting that Somin is justifying one sloppy generalization (against larger government) in part with another sloppy generalization. Government has better incentives to provide public goods than does the private sector.

(2)

Second, as I have often emphasized in my academic work and on this blog, the quality of government policy is severely compromised by widespread voter ignorance. The majority of voters know very little about public policy and make poor use of the information they do have. Voter ignorance and irrationality are perfectly rational, because the chance that any one voter's knowledge will make a difference is infinitesmally small. Still, they routinely result in voters supporting flawed policies and doing a poor job of evaluating the performance of elected officials. For example, they blame politicians for bad weather, and routinely support protectionism despite the overwhelming evidence against it. The dangers of voter ignorance are likely to increase as government grows. The bigger government gets, the more of it there is for voters to monitor, and the more difficult it will be for them to have even a superficial knowledge of all its functions.


Implicit in this assertion seems to be an implicit bias in believing that voter ignorance tends to lead to too much government rather too little. And that not acting when acting is called for is somehow a "free lunch." But, inaction, like action, is a choice with consequences. For example, let us assume that we knew that fiscal stimulus would be very effective in mitigating a downturn in the economy. Let us further suppose that voter ignorance led voters to disapprove of fiscal stimulus anyway, which in turn created political pressure that prevented fiscal stimulus from occurring. In that case, you clearly would have an instance of voter ignorance leading to too little government, not too much.

Finally, Somin asserts that voter ignorance is more of a problem if government is larger. In part because a larger government is harder to monitor. But, it must be remembered that when considering costs and benefits, it is not merely the costs and benefits of government action that must be considered, but also the costs and benefits of government inaction.

Let us consider financial markets for a moment. Assume we had a smaller government and they were unregulated. Would there be less to monitor? No, because we would still need to monitor financial markets to determine whether regulation would be beneficial or not. (Assuming we care about things like the costs of fraud or prolonged depressions caused by financial mismanagement.) Ignorant voters are not in a good position to determine that financial markets should not be regulated any more than they are in a position to determine that they should be regulated.

And one thing that is neglected here is that the only way we can learn how best to regulate financial markets is to go ahead and regulate them so we can learn what works and what doesn't work. One of the virtues of action is that, even when some mistakes are made, you tend to learn more about what sorts of actions would be effective and which are likely to be ineffective. If we do nothing, we learn nothing. Doing nothing, we do not learn the lessons that only action can teach us. It is funny how Somin systematically ignores the benefits of action and the ability to learn from it. Now, of course learning has costs as well as benefits. You have to look at the specific case.

(3)

Third, even relatively well-informed voters and well-intentioned government officials will often lack the information they need to allocate resources more effectively than the market would in their place. As F.A. Hayek argued in his classic essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," government planners lacks the kind of information that the price system routinely provides to market participants. Thus, they usually have no way of knowing whether the projects they want to spend tax money on will yield benefits that outweigh their costs.


There is no denying that markets are better at certain tasks, like providing a large selection of goods. Compare and contrast the products available in the United States and the former Soviet Union as a case in point.

Outside of the context of government control of manufacturing and industry, this insight has limited relevance.

Let us take a particular good. For example, trying to lessen the coercive international private sector trade of women in sexual slavery. Do markets contain better information than government about the optimal amount of resources to allocate to this problem? Answer. Clearly no.

Also, there are all sorts of problems with market allocations. Markets only cater to people with money to spend. But the needs of people with money to spend are not necessarily more urgent than the needs of people without money. To the extent that markets allocate more resources to ensuring that "Fluffy the poodle" is groomed three times (or imagine another frivolous activity if you really love poodles) a day while other people do not get access to resources they need to prevent malaria, we can question whether in fact the market is allocating resources most efficiently. It depends on how you define efficiency. It the question is investment in resources in a way that is most useful to humans, then clearly not. Resources invested in preventing malaria are definitely more beneficial than resources invested in grooming Fluffy the poodle. To the extent that markets allocate resources to the latter instead of the former, they are not really maximizing efficiency. On the other hand, if we define maximizing efficiency as providing goods to whoever is willing and able to pay regardless of the actual merit of their expenditures, then maybe the market is maximizing efficiency.

I think the better definition of efficiency has to do with the maximization of things useful to humans.

Anyway, what can we say given this. We can say that markets fail to maximize efficiency. Does that mean we should automatically prefer government? (That is, should I play a reverse-Somin and rely on generalizations to support the opposite bias.) No. Because government also fails to maximize efficiency. Funding that is invested to prevent malaria might instead be diverted to corrupt officials (who low and behold, will use those funds to groom Fluffy three times a day.)

It does seem that imperfections aside, using my preferred measure of efficiency, there is definitely something to be said for markets in many particular contexts. When I have traveled internationally to less developed countries, I have a tendency to come back and marvel at the amazing quantity and quality of goods I can get at such establishments as Home Depot, Costco, Target, etc, etc. There is no doubt that, even though the market is not perfect, it does some things extremely well.

But, it doesn't do other things at all. The market is not going to lift a finger to provide public goods that are also necessary (like reducing the incidence of human trafficking in women and children who are essentially sexual slaves, for example).

The bottom-line:

That I really love and appreciate everything that I can buy at Costco does not mean that I should look at funding for efforts to reduce human trafficking with extra skepticism. Obviously, we should structure such funding so that it is used efficiently and not diverted improperly.

To review:

Somin has produce three reasons to justify his biased and sloppy tendency to inappropriately generalize.

(1) The private sector has better incentives. Response: It only has better incentives for accomplishing certain objectives. It has worse incentives for accomplishing other objectives.

(2) Rational ignorance make it difficult for citizens to determine whether government action is appropriate and to monitor government. Response: Rational ignorance also makes it difficult to determine whether government inaction is appropriate. Also, it is not only government that must be monitored for proper decisions to be made. One still has to be aware of the effects of the private sector. Most people are as ignorant of the way Wall Street Works as they are of how the Federal Reserve works. Finally, when we prefer inaction over action, we lose the learning opportunities that only arise from action.

(3) The private sector allocates goods efficiently. Response: Neither the private sector nor the government maximizes efficiency in allocating resources. It is quite clear that the market is vastly superior at providing some goods (i.e. anything you could buy at Costco, steel, all sorts of manufactured and agricultural goods, etc.) while the government is vastly superior at providing other goods (i.e. combating human trafficking, providing public parks and education, controlling crime etc.)

The bottom-line is this. None of the reasons Somin gives to try to justify being biased in fact actually work to convincingly and successfully justify his bias.

By the way, I am not opposed to all sorts of generalization. I am in fact highly suspicious against the idea that the private sector would provide adequate education to society without the presence of vouchers or some other public subsidy, for example. I am in fact highly suspicious of claims that government would do a very good job if it controlled agriculture or manufacturing.

I am biased against the idea that government should be punishing speech or taking sides in religious debates.

But, my biases or generalizations are much more nuanced that Somin's. I think that Somin's biases can be accurately described as crude and unreasonable.

There is a place for the argument that the private sector is likely to have better incentives and better allocate resources in particular contexts. There is no reason to be categorically against generalizations. If in the past, you have found that the private sector is better at manufacturing widgets and gadgets, it is not unreasonable to generalize and suspect it would be better at manufacturing some other product or be better at manufacturing in general.

But to go from these small generalizations to the big generalizations that Somin wants to make, that is just ridiculous.
1.31.2009 6:27am
David Welker (www):

we're not "cynics," as Obama suggests, but believers in the law of unintended consequences


You are in fact cynics. But that is besides the point. The "law" of unintended consequences applies just much to inaction as it does to action.
1.31.2009 6:43am
The River Temoc (mail):
Second, as I have often emphasized in my academic work and on this blog, the quality of government policy is severely compromised by widespread voter ignorance. The majority of voters know very little about public policy and make poor use of the information they do have.

Is this an argument against Big Government, or against democracy?
1.31.2009 6:57am
Eli Rabett (www):
For every evil and inefficiency of BIG GOVERNMENT there are equal and as mind boggling inefficiencies and evil of small government. No government is bad for your health unless you are a warlord, and even there life expectancy can be low.

David Welker is right, Ilya Somin is knee jerking
1.31.2009 8:17am
Gump:
I really enjoyed reading David Welker's response to the post, and think he made some good points regarding government regulation of production/agriculture vs things that are not handled by the private sector at all.

Regardless of whether there are some activities that government is better suited for I think Ilya Somin's points still stand strong, and that we should have a default "little or no government" switch. Remaining skeptical of government and all the fraud, abuse, mismanagement, and criminality that goes along with it is just good general policy.

It's easy to say, oh there are some things that government does better and some it doesn't, but in real life our government is involved in everything and does most everything poorly. Government at its current level is absolutely unsustainable, to borrow a popular phrase. I almost look forward to when we don't have the money to pay for it anymore so we can get back to the business of being a successful country.
1.31.2009 8:54am
American Psikhushka (mail):
Well I can see it's time to dust off my old Mises quote. Here is one of the most important principles in economics:

"It is not easy to explain this state of affairs to people misled by the passionate anti-capitalistic agitation. As the self-styled intellectuals see it, the capitalist system and the greed of the businessmen are to blame for the fact that the total sum of products turned out for consumption is not greater than it actually is. The only way to do away with poverty they know is to take away — by means of progressive taxation — as much as possible from the well-to-do. In their eyes the wealth of the rich is the cause of the poverty of the poor. In accordance with this idea the fiscal policies of all nations and especially also of the United States were in the last decades directed toward confiscating ever-increasing portions of the wealth and income of the higher brackets. The greater part of the funds thus collected would have been employed by the taxpayers for saving and additional capital accumulation. Their investment would have increased productivity per man-hour and would in this way have provided more goods for consumption. It would have raised the average standard of living of the common man. If the government spends them for current expenditure, they are dissipated and capital accumulation is concomitantly slowed down."

The main problem with big government is that it has to be paid for. To pay for it you have to deplete society's capital stock (or "capital accumulation" above - the capital in the hands of the people). Since this capital stock is the only thing that increases societal weatlh and raises the standard of living long term you are hampering the only source of prosperity and - once government gets big enough - causing societal wealth and living standards to stagnate and decline. That's what happens in socialist/communist economies.

Picture the economy like a corn field and the capital stock like seed corn. Once government gets too big it starts to eat next year's seed corn and you have less and less as time goes on. When you cut back on government (cut taxes/spending) there is more seed corn to increase yields -increase societal wealth and raise living standards.

This really isn't cynicism, it's almost mechanical how it works. (Although when you realize how it works you can get jaded when you see things headed in the wrong direction.) See the Economic Freedom Index Rankings:

http://www.heritage.org/Index/Ranking.aspx

Those near the bottom tend to have nearly completely controlled economies - the ultimate in big government. Those near the top tend to have smaller government, lower tax rates, less regulation, freer markets, etc. It's nearly mechanical in how it works. (There are some other variables, but in many cases those are repercussions from past big government. Or criminal/corrupt government.)

So that's why big government is bad. Past a certain amount for essential services basically every increase in government makes society poorer.
1.31.2009 9:11am
David Warner:
Anyone know Pinch? I think we found our new Times columnist. Judging by the quality of his detractors, Somin's the best.

Randy makes a good point, similar to one I suggested a couple months ago in a thread on new direction for the R's, but its not really inconsistent with what Somin is saying, when he adds the "general, but not absolute" caveat.

Generally, military solutions should be avoided, but only the pacifist says they should be absolutely. It's a useful formulation, similar to transversal rather than universal.
1.31.2009 9:24am
Paul Zrimsek (mail):

There are times when government does work. We needed more, not less, government regulation of the mortgage markets that led us into this mess.


Was the second sentence intended to support the first? It actually contradicts it.
1.31.2009 9:27am
NTB24601:
Ilya Somin:

The figures you cite include the tax cut provisions as well as the spending ones. The ones I cite (which are on pg. 3 of the CBO document) look only at the spending part, since only that part is relevant to a post criticizing expansions of the size of government.

The numbers that I used are only the numbers that the CBO identified as outlays (spending). If you include the revenues (tax cuts), then the numbers are:


In combining the spending and revenue effects of H.R. 1, CBO estimates that enacting the bill would increase federal budget deficits by $169 billion over the remaining months of fiscal year 2009, by $356 billion in 2010, by $174 billion in 2011, and by $816 billion over the 2009-2019 period.


So that's $169 / $816 = 20.7% in 2009 and ($169 + 356) / $816 = 64.3% by the end of 2010 if you include tax cuts.

From your reference to page 3 though, I think I see what you are doing. That page has a table which breaks the budgetary impacts down by appropriations, direct spending, and revenues. If I include only the appropriations, then I get your numbers: $29 / $358.2 = 8.1% in 2009 and ($29 + $115.8) / $356 = 40.1% by the end of 2010.

So I guess the question is: Why do you exclude direct spending? The "Division B - Direct Spending" category includes things like expansion of unemployment compensation and health care programs.
1.31.2009 9:37am
paul lukasiak (mail):
all I know is that I stopped reading when the false (and intellectually dishonest) equivalence of "government spending" and "free speech" was drawn.

Here's a clue. Neither freedom of speech, nor freedom of religion, nor gun rights, or any other basic right, were negatively impacted by the creation of such huge government programs as Medicare and AFDC. Government can, and usually has, increased spending without any infringment on civil liberties, and to suggest that there is any kind of relationship is pure demagoguery.
1.31.2009 9:40am
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
What we have is a "principal-agent problem". It is useful to go back to the Founding Era and examine how much time on average voters had to spend to supervise government agents as government was then established according to the Constitution. We don't have reliable data on that, but we can estimate it was less than a hour a week, mostly during the summer and the winter because in an agrarian society people tended to be more busy making a living during planting and harvest seasons. This is discussed in "The Jury and Consensus Government in Mid-Eighteenth-Century America", William E. Nelson. Today comparable supervision would be more than a full-time job for every voter.

To supervising government agents must be added the supervision of our agents in the private sector.

Yes, "no action" is an action, but positive action is not preferable to "inaction" when we have humans making decisions in ways that are more likely than not to be counterproductive. It is not just a matter of imperfect of incomplete information, but of cognitive capacity. See "Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems", by Jay Forrester.
1.31.2009 9:50am
American Psikhushka (mail):
David Welker-

For someone who has a problem with generalizations you seem to make a lot of them.

Whether the government or the private sector has better incentives to accomplish a particular goal depends on the goal. The private sector has no or very little incentive to provide things like public or national parks or public schools or national defense and other goods that all citizens have access to regardless of income.

Government crowds out private investment. A lot of the best schools at all levels are private. There are parks, forests, nature reserves, etc. that are private - owned by individuals, charities, etc. So if the government got out of those areas there would quickly be private replacements. And there would be some that would be free or low cost.

National security is usually accepted as a function of government by libertarians, but if the government got out of that business there would be replacements as well - private security companies, militia systems, etc.

Let us consider financial markets for a moment. Assume we had a smaller government and they were unregulated. Would there be less to monitor? No, because we would still need to monitor financial markets to determine whether regulation would be beneficial or not. (Assuming we care about things like the costs of fraud...

That kind of regulation can be handled privately. Just set up the laws to make it easy for private parties to investigate and sue for real cases of fraud.

...or prolonged depressions caused by financial mismanagement

Usually government interventionalism is the cause of prolonged depressions. Usually central bank creation of fiat money and credit resulting in malinvestment that creates bubble/bust cycles. Often the central bank creates more fiat money and credit, prolonging the correction of earlier interventionalism.

And one thing that is neglected here is that the only way we can learn how best to regulate financial markets is to go ahead and regulate them so we can learn what works and what doesn't work. One of the virtues of action is that, even when some mistakes are made, you tend to learn more about what sorts of actions would be effective and which are likely to be ineffective. If we do nothing, we learn nothing. Doing nothing, we do not learn the lessons that only action can teach us.

You know currencies have been around for thousands of years, right? And securities markets have been around for hundreds of years. Most of any lessons to be learned have been learned several times over. In a nutshell:

- Fiat currencies suck because governments cannot resist the temptation of unlimited spending by printing more money. So they print money (inflate the currency), cause bubble/bust cycles and eventually hyperinflation and bankruptcy.

- Big government sucks because it depletes the capital stock and causes economic stagnation, static or declining living standards, and often starvation. The main, strongest examples of this are communism/socialism.

I'm going to break this up into multiple posts - continued below...
1.31.2009 9:52am
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
Government spending programs are largely a mistake (besides being unconstitutional) because they are an unsustainable attempt to maintain a "standard of living bubble". Our productivity of hard goods cannot support our standard of living. We can't afford Social Security or Medicare by entertaining one another or selling insurance to one another. When our standard of living drops to a sustainable level we will have a standard of living closer to that of Bangladesh than that of China (whose standard of living will also drop). All these government interventions to sustain the unsustainable will only be counterproductive.

It is interesting that even Vladimir Putin is implicitly questioning the very foundation of modern economic practice -- fiat currency.
1.31.2009 10:05am
Javert:

But to go from these small generalizations to the big generalizations that Somin wants to make, that is just ridiculous.
Tu quoque.
1.31.2009 10:11am
pluribus:

First, government officials have poor incentives relative to the private sector. Because the resources they spend are not their own money, they are more likely to waste them or divert them to favored interest groups.

As a general proposition, this is certainly true. People are generally less careful with other people's money than with their own. But this is not always the case. John Thain spent $1.2 million of corporate money redecorating his office while his company's profits were plummeting and it was accepting government subsidies. Enron's Jeff Skilling recklessly spent corporate money on personal luxuries and lavish parties as his company hurtled toward bankruptcy--taking with it thousands of individuals and families, destroying their life savings, and ruining their retirements. It has become almost routine to read of major corporate executives who help themselves to multi-million-dollar salaries and bonuses while running corporate profits and stock prices into the ground. The free market controls on corporate excess simply do not catch all of these examples of private executives who waste (squander) other people's money. The private sector is often guilty of the same kind of misconduct as government--giving people carte blanche to waste other people's money. When that happens, it is natural to turn to the goverment for some kind of control, most often in the form of regulation. If the government regulates this kind of misbehavior, I do not consider it a waste of other people's money. I consider it an example of government that works. I suspect that Obama does too.
1.31.2009 10:28am
JohnV:
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act is great example of good intentions but harmful over reaching regulation. While it aimed to prevent the import of harmful toys from China, it actually would ban the production and sale of all handcrafted children's products made in America.

It is such a bad law that the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced yesterday that it was delaying (perhaps unlawfully)its implementation for a year.

How could such a bad law be overwhelmingly be passed by Congress (last August). Did any staffer read the bill and notice its implications?
1.31.2009 10:30am
American Psikhushka (mail):
David Welker-

Let us take a particular good. For example, trying to lessen the coercive international private sector trade of women in sexual slavery. Do markets contain better information than government about the optimal amount of resources to allocate to this problem? Answer. Clearly no.

Well this is a complex problem. And unfortunately past experiments in big government, communism, socialism, etc. are one of the main causes. Many of these areas wouldn't be so poverty and crime-ridden if it weren't for that.

Certainly abandoning the Drug War and focusing some of those assets on the much more reprehensible crimes of sexual slavery and human trafficking would be a good start. Sexual slavery and human trafficking certainly has more priority than the largely "victimless" drug trade.(I realize the drug trade is not truly victimless, but human trafficking is much more overtly rights violating and victim-creating.)

Gun prohibition - outlawing legal gun ownership - is probably a major contributor to the problem. It would be more difficult to grab women for this kind of thing when they and their friends and relatives could defend themselves and each other. I realize that now in many of these areas the crime groups might be so powerful that this might not be possible at this point, but it might be possible and make sense going forward. But there is a good chance that the whole situation might have been avoided with legal gun ownership and sensible self-defense laws.

The whole gun prohibition model is idiotic. When you outlaw gun ownership only the criminals and the police can defend themselves. Eventually the criminal groups become so wealthy and powerful that they corrupt, intimidate, and subvert the police and then they have a defenseless, helpless populace to prey on. It's a model for handing society over to criminal and corrupt groups. Unfortunately a substantial amount of people don't realize this.

There are some market solutions that can help the problem. Foreign personal ads and dating services allow the surplus female populations in these areas to form voluntary marriages and leave the at risk area. Also money sent back by the married couple help her family and the local economy. (And no, I'm not advocating forced, abusive, or coerced relationships. But the efforts to hamper legitimate foreign personal and dating services have been idiotic - basically motivated by bitter, threatened western women.)
1.31.2009 10:38am
paul lukasiak (mail):
That kind of regulation can be handled privately. Just set up the laws to make it easy for private parties to investigate and sue for real cases of fraud.

okay, first off, the unintentional hilarity of a conservative advocating laws making it easier for people to sue for (what is essentially) defective product liability is priceless.

but more to the point, "fraud" by its very definition is about the misrepresentation of the value of something. In other words, the money isn't there to recover because it never really existed in the first place. Sure, you can sue Madoff or Exxon, but most of your investment can't be recovered because what you invested in was fraudulent to begin with -- and when you add in lawyers fees, its not going to be worth it.

Then, of course, there is the question of proving fraudulent intent. Good luck proving that Moodys deliberately rated pieces of paper that would turn out to be worthless as AAA -- or that the real estate agent who assured you that the house you bought would be a good investment knew that it was a bad investment.

The private sector cannot regulate itself, because the need for regulation is collective, and the private sector's needs are limited to the individual entities -- and focussed on short term gains (i.e. maintaining the price of ones stock by any means possible) rather than sustainable gains.
1.31.2009 10:45am
Javert:
Obama's desire for unchecked power can be seen in his use of the concept "works." This pragmatist approach to politics starts with an unquestionable end, e.g., increased welfare and regulation, then defines a policy as "working' (or not) by reference to whether it satisfies his statist goals.

In essence, Obama is telling America: Don't question my desire for control. Judge my policies only on the basis of whether they are efficient (or inefficient) policies by which to gain that control.
1.31.2009 11:11am
MarkField (mail):

Why should we have a general presumption against government regulation of speech or religion? Why not instead support censorship when it "works" by improving the marketplace of ideas, and oppose it when it doesn't?


As Prof. Volokh has pointed out here many times, this is precisely what we do. There are all kinds of laws banning speech: fraud, obscenity, speech which immediately endangers others, defamation, etc. And under Smith v. Oregon, laws of general application bind religions.

While I personally favor light government when it comes to free speech and religion, that doesn't mean we have no government. It's all a question of deciding what works. And that's the direct opposite of your argument.
1.31.2009 11:16am
Nifonged:
"Neither freedom of speech, nor freedom of religion, nor gun rights, or any other basic right, were negatively impacted by the creation of such huge government programs as Medicare and AFDC."

Pursuit of happiness much?
1.31.2009 11:17am
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):

Taken seriously, this argument leads to the rejection of any systematic constraints on government power.



Well, yeah.

There is another sentence there, though, that carries the refutation: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

The fact is that government never really "works" in the sense of being efficient, and carrying out the tasks it's intended to. This is obvious to everyone who deals with it in directly: think of the long history of jokes about the Postal Service, the DMV, or the other petty bureaucracies everyone has to deal with.

Not to mention the wonders of government procurement, "earmarks", flooded city busses in New Orleans, financial regulation and the ability of legislators to skew regulation to help their friends and hurt their foes, or the ability of a prosecutor to cause real damage to innocent people, as we've seen with Mike Nifong and Elliot Spitzer.

Government in general is structurally flawed, beset with perverse incentives, from measurement of a prosecutors conviction ratio to the way that it's easier to get a Robert Byrd Bridge than it is to get money spent to keep the bridge in good repair.

If our measure is whether government works, then Obama is making, all unknowing, an argument for anarchy.

Unfortunately, anarchy is unstable, because there's always some antisocial type who wants to make other people do what he thinks they ought to. So we end up with the need for some government, and certain things that must be done -- like national defense -- that arise from it.

Telling us about just wanting "government that works" is just pretty words to distract us.
1.31.2009 11:30am
Redlands (mail):

Of course, we can and will argue over the specific instances when government is working or not, but I think it is hopeful that Obama is willing to reject tired old party stances in favor of a new approach. Time will tell if it works.


This spending bill notwithstanding, of course.
1.31.2009 11:33am
PDXLawyer (mail):
Seems to me that all of the problems your talk about are variations on the theme of agency costs. That is, they seem to be more driven by the size of the organization (or the extremely diluted body of voter/shareholders) than by anything which is "governmental" rather than "private sector."

I think, though, that this ties into your point about markets. Large organizations substitute command-and-control coordination for market coordination. Of course some things, like national defense, have such large returns to scale that they outweigh the agency costs of scale. Where the optimal balance lies depends upon the state of technology (including organizational technology).

I'm less worried about the public/private balance than the large/small one. There is a tendency for government action to favor large organizations (public or private) over small ones because: (a) governments themselves are larger than most non-government firms, so they tend to assume that big organizations are normal; (b) big governments (like the US government) are generally more powerful than smaller ones (like the states, or Iraq); and (c) it's simpler - or it seems so - to make categorical rules rather than try to figure out incentives in poorly understood markets.
1.31.2009 11:37am
American Psikhushka (mail):
David Welker-

Also, there are all sorts of problems with market allocations. Markets only cater to people with money to spend. But the needs of people with money to spend are not necessarily more urgent than the needs of people without money. To the extent that markets allocate more resources to ensuring that "Fluffy the poodle" is groomed three times (or imagine another frivolous activity if you really love poodles) a day while other people do not get access to resources they need to prevent malaria, we can question whether in fact the market is allocating resources most efficiently.

Here you are putting the communist cart before the market horse.

The reason why we have a wealthy, prosperous society is because we have property rights and markets. In many cases the reasons why other societies are not as well off is because they have bad or corrupt economic systems. (And some other factors like wars, natural disasters, etc.)

So what are we supposed to do?

- Enact worldwide property redistribution - worldwide communism? It has ruined or near ruined every country it has been tried in, and there is no reason to believe it wouldn't ruin the world economy when enacted on a worldwide basis.

- Militarily invade any country with a bad or corrupt economic system and try to force the adoption of a market economy so that they can provide for themselves? That would be immoral, unlikely to be successful, and cause our own economic collapse.

- Try to maintain our fairly successful market economy so that our citizens can voluntarily contribute to helping people around the world if they have the means and inclination to do so? That seems like the way to go.

What you're advocating is basically the worldwide guaranty of positive rights, which would require forced worldwide redistribution of property - basically a degree of worldwide communism.

I think the better definition of efficiency has to do with the maximization of things useful to humans.

And let me guess: You, as central planner, will subjectively decide what is the "maximization of things useful to humans". And since you will need to force this on all mankind, you will need to establish a worldwide police state. Sounds pretty pricey to me, you probably will wind up with widespread starvation, as one often does with communism.

But, it doesn't do other things at all. The market is not going to lift a finger to provide public goods that are also necessary (like reducing the incidence of human trafficking in women and children who are essentially sexual slaves, for example).

Not at all. As I stated above, there are market processes that could help reduce this problem. And libertarians generally don't have a problem with reasonable police services, either public or private. (Although many feel a private market would be ideal.) And getting rid of gun prohibition, which the market would be involved in, could improve the situation.
1.31.2009 12:11pm
trad and anon:
First, government officials have poor incentives relative to the private sector. Because the resources they spend are not their own money, they are more likely to waste them or divert them to favored interest groups.
Since when are people in the private sector spending their own money? They're spending the shareholders' money. Certain founder-owners who own a large percentage of the company's equity don't have this problem but other compensation metrics can and do produce perverse incentives (like wastefully spending money on perks for top execs).
1.31.2009 12:41pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"What Obama is saying is that government should do what it tries to do. Whether the government doing it is better or worse than the private sector doing it, Obama is promising to actually do it."

Correct. But he wants government to try to do more and more things.

"But this is not always the case. John Thain spent $1.2 million of corporate money redecorating his office while his company's profits were plummeting and it was accepting government subsidies."

I'd agree he failed in his duty to his stockholders, but that remodeling created jobs. That's the same justification Obama used when he tried to put money in the stimulus to fix up the capitol mall.

I think Barney Frank and Crhistopher Dodd would have approved of BofA lending a million to United Airlines so UA could decorate their offices. They want lending and they want to create jobs.

While I'm not championing anyone decorteing their office, it is interesting to apply the stimulus logic other areas.
1.31.2009 12:42pm
American Psikhushka (mail):
paul lukasiak-

okay, first off, the unintentional hilarity of a conservative advocating laws making it easier for people to sue for (what is essentially) defective product liability is priceless.

First of all I'm a libertarian, not a conservative.

And as far as tort actions are concerned, they are a good way to transfer government regulatory or enforcement functions over to the private sector. We don't have an MMEA - Medical Malpractice Enforcement Agency - we have a bunch of tort lawyers. (And regular police when they do something really stupid or outrageous.) That model could be used in other areas.

I don't know what you mean about "defective product liability". I was talking about cases of fraud, malpractice, etc.

but more to the point, "fraud" by its very definition is about the misrepresentation of the value of something. In other words, the money isn't there to recover because it never really existed in the first place. Sure, you can sue Madoff or Exxon, but most of your investment can't be recovered because what you invested in was fraudulent to begin with -- and when you add in lawyers fees, its not going to be worth it.

Well some of what you are talking about are just bad investments. Which I avoid by learning about investments on my own and not letting anyone else manage any of my money. I was talking more about cases of fraud, unauthorized trading, etc.

And I understand why you would mention Madoff, but why did you mention Exxon? Is there some scandal involving them that I haven't heard about?

Then, of course, there is the question of proving fraudulent intent. Good luck proving that Moodys deliberately rated pieces of paper that would turn out to be worthless as AAA -- or that the real estate agent who assured you that the house you bought would be a good investment knew that it was a bad investment.

You're talking about bad investment decisions again. I avoid those by doing my own research and not letting anyone else touch any of my money.

The private sector cannot regulate itself, because the need for regulation is collective, and the private sector's needs are limited to the individual entities -- and focussed on short term gains (i.e. maintaining the price of ones stock by any means possible) rather than sustainable gains.

We do it with malpractice lawsuits in the medical field. I don't see why it couldn't be done in the financial field as well.
1.31.2009 12:51pm
American Psikhushka (mail):
pluribus-

The free market controls on corporate excess simply do not catch all of these examples of private executives who waste (squander) other people's money. The private sector is often guilty of the same kind of misconduct as government--giving people carte blanche to waste other people's money. When that happens, it is natural to turn to the goverment for some kind of control, most often in the form of regulation. If the government regulates this kind of misbehavior, I do not consider it a waste of other people's money. I consider it an example of government that works. I suspect that Obama does too.

But if you are invested in these companies you have control over your shares. If you don't like what management is doing you sell your shares, or complain to the Board of Directors, or in some cases sue, or if you have enough shares or influence vote them out. I'm all for more activist shareholders, a more competitive market for management, more oversight of management, looser hostile takeover regulations, etc. but looking for more regulation in this area for private matters like that is asking for trouble.
1.31.2009 1:03pm
pluribus:
American Psikhushka:

So what are we supposed to do? - Enact worldwide property redistribution - worldwide communism?

I wish some of you right wing ideologues would come down from your cloud and deal with the real world. Nobody here, or in the Obama administration, is advocating communism--either in this country or worldwide. Yes, they heard about the Soviet Union, too. Nor is anybody advocating fascism. Yes, they heard about Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, too. All economic systems in the world today (including that of Communist China) are a mix of private and public ownership, control, and management. This is a given. The question is how much should be private and how much public, and how to get both to work. It is true that government oftenimes doesn't work. It is equally true that private enterprise oftentimes doesn't work. Obama has declared himself in favor of what works.
1.31.2009 1:04pm
Kirk:
Paul,
"There are times when government does work. We needed more, not less, government regulation of the mortgage markets that led us into this mess."
Was the second sentence intended to support the first? It actually contradicts it.
Oohhh, good catch! I guess it just means that Randy R. is part of the "the government we have may be flawed, but the government I imagine is perfect" camp.

American Psikhushka,
gun prohibition ... [is] a model for handing society over to criminal and corrupt groups. Unfortunately a substantial amount of people don't realize this. [emphasis added]
Don't overlook the possibility that some do realize it, but think they will be among the winners.
1.31.2009 1:06pm
pluribus:
American Psikhushka:


I'm all for more activist shareholders, a more competitive market for management, more oversight of management, looser hostile takeover regulations, etc. but looking for more regulation in this area for private matters like that is asking for trouble.

These goals can be achieved, if at all, principally through regulation. Are the people who invested in Madoff's fund supposed to follow him from his office to the bank to make sure that he isn't stealing their money? Post sentries in his home and place of business to make sure he doesn't fly the coop with his ill-gotten gains? And after they find out he has made off with $50 billion, do they then hire an attorney to sue him on a contingent fee? How much do you think investors would recover right now if they sued Madoff? Will they have to garnishee his salary for the next millenium? SEC regulation should protect private investors and the public from these kinds of outrages. Was the free market adequate to guard against the Enron fiasco? If so, why didn't it do so? If you want to live in an economic jungle, and think you can take care of yourself in that environment, feel free to do so. Do not force me to do so. I want the government to look out for my interests, and those of other investors, with sensible, reasonable, practical regulations--not excessive or oppressive regulations--and I recognize that private markets alone are inadequate to the task.
1.31.2009 1:15pm
mcates (mail):
At some point, Americans started using the instrument of government to implement their vision of the world, instead of taking the task on for themselves. At times this was necessary, but often times it was not.

Overtime, due to the continuous transfer of power from the individual to the government; the government became the main entity through which American's achieved the American Dream.

As the government's power increased, the individual's power to shape the world around them gradually diminished. Such that today, most American's feel powerless to affect the world around them and always look to the government for the solution.

Today many Americans have become to believe the government is the best way that one can achieve their vision of the world, without realizing that the more power they give away the less likely they are able to influence and implement their own vision.

The founders of our country warned us not to take this path. We have ignored them to our own detriment.
1.31.2009 1:22pm
trad and anon:
I agree 100% with David Welker's post above. This almost seems too obvious to point out, but I would be especially vehement in agreeing with his point that markets tend to divert an enormous amount of resources towards the provision of luxury goods for the wealthy. How much top medical talent has been wasted on the financially lucrative but socially worthless field of cosmetic dermatology?
1.31.2009 1:23pm
Paul Zrimsek (mail):
It's a pretty natural error, Kirk; it's tough to look at what regulators might have done to prevent something bad without implicitly granting them the gift of hindsight. One of the uses of Ilya Somin's recommended bias against regulation is to help counteract these invidious comparisons between the ex ante blundering of markets and the ex post wisdom of regulators.
1.31.2009 1:25pm
MarkField (mail):

The founders of our country warned us not to take this path. We have ignored them to our own detriment.


Some might say that the Founders took over the government precisely so that they could "implement their vision of the world". The whole point of the DoI seems to contradict your claim.
1.31.2009 1:27pm
Lily (mail):
"Obama has declared himself in favor of what works."


Bless you, Pluribus, this is the funniest statement I have read in a long time.

And, Obama is most certainly advocating redistributionist policies, in the interest of 'fairness', of course. He has stated so. Doesn't matter what 'ism' you call it.
1.31.2009 1:33pm
LN (mail):
When the owner of a company hires a worker, all sorts of principal-agent problems arise. The owner can't monitor everything the worker does; the worker has an incentive to make his job seem more important than it actually is; the worker has an incentive to slack off and not work as hard as he possibly can.

That's why companies and corporations simply can't work. It's pure logic. Our economy must be dependent on self-employed people.
1.31.2009 1:40pm
Ken Arromdee:
There are all kinds of laws banning speech: fraud, obscenity, speech which immediately endangers others, defamation, etc. And under Smith v. Oregon, laws of general application bind religions.

The point is that these are considered exceptions to the general rule. The government does regulate certain aspects of speech and religion; but we don't assume that doing so is right by default unless we have a specific reason to make a specific regulation. The government can't just regulate speech on the grounds that it's the government's prerogative to regulate speech.
1.31.2009 1:41pm
pluribus:
I wrote:

"Obama has declared himself in favor of what works."

Lily replied:

Bless you, Pluribus, this is the funniest statement I have read in a long time.

Thanks, Lily, but I can't claim credit for your amusement. The statement is from the current newspapers. You do read them occasionally, don't you?
1.31.2009 1:42pm
trad and anon:
As the government's power increased, the individual's power to shape the world around them gradually diminished.
OK, let's have a quiz:

1) 100 years ago, the government's power to protect black people from discrimination and violence was much less than it is today. Today, the government has much more ability to punish crimes against black people and to protect them from invidious discrimination in employment, housing, etc. As a result of this, black people

a) Have less power to shape the world around them.
b) Have more power to shape the world above them.

2) The government's power to provide health insurance to the poor is much less than it will be in a year or so. As a result of this, poor people will

a) Have less power to shape the world around them.
b) Have more power to shape the world around them.

And so forth and so on. Of course, there's lots of stuff the government does that really does negatively impact people's power to shape the world around them, but on balance I'd say the expansion of government has given people more options, not fewer.
1.31.2009 1:43pm
pluribus:
Ken Arromdee:

The government can't just regulate speech on the grounds that it's the government's prerogative to regulate speech.

Whose prerogative is it? Would you prefer to privatize the regulation of fraud, defamation, threats, and similar examples of offensive speech? I prefer to have the government do it, as it has been doing in this country for a couple of hundred years or so.
1.31.2009 1:46pm
Lily (mail):
Pluribus, you quote without giving credit? (I would have noted the source as this is a statement I would not be eager to take credit for).
1.31.2009 1:55pm
mcates (mail):
David Welker,


The private sector has no or very little incentive to provide things like public or national parks or public schools or national defense and other goods that all citizens have access to regardless of income.


If what you are saying is true, then why do so many companies donate so much money to 1000's of different causes?

pluribus,


wish some of you right wing ideologues would come down from your cloud and deal with the real world. Nobody here, or in the Obama administration, is advocating communism--either in this country or worldwide.


I remember the good ole days, not so long ago when we had millions of people that believed we were heading for a fascist state. I don't think they believed we were fascist at the moment, just heading down that road.
1.31.2009 1:59pm
Lily (mail):
"It is true that government oftenimes (sic) doesn't work. It is equally true that private enterprise oftentimes doesn't work"


But the critical difference here is that we are not generally compelled to participate in a specific private enterprise whereas the same cannot be said for government enterprise.

For example, no one was forced to participate in Madoff's schemes, but we are forced to participate in the government's Social Security scheme.

One of the real dangers of government is compulsory participation in programs and initiatives which are not necessarily in our own best interests.
1.31.2009 2:02pm
Andrew_M_Garland (mail) (www):
The Real Tax Burden
Excerpt:

The amount of tax that a government imposes is the amount it spends. The timing and amount of tax collections is merely finance.

If the government cuts rates or gives rebates, but also increases the size of government, then real taxes are higher. Government is taking a bigger share of the economic pie leaving less for private use or investment.

Milton Friedman pointed out that the burden on the private sector is bigger when the government grows as a percentage of the economy. Focus on government spending, not on how government is financed, whether it's out of current taxes or future taxes.
1.31.2009 2:02pm
mcates (mail):
MarkField,


Some might say that the Founders took over the government precisely so that they could "implement their vision of the world". The whole point of the DoI seems to contradict your claim.


I agree with your first sentence. I don't think there is any doubt of that.

However, the founders also warned us against excess government.

Now if you are saying that the "new" vision for American's is to have exess government, then you might have a point.

But that would still be something the founders warned us against.
1.31.2009 2:05pm
mcates (mail):
trad and anon,

Your points are valid, as long as you discount my point.


At times this was necessary, but often times it was not.


But I did say that because there is a place for government as the founding fathers knew well.


I'd say the expansion of government has given people more options, not fewer.


That might be a valid point if part of the population you are talking about was a more signifcant percentage of the overall population.

One could easily aruge that these are also products of our government:

Black people have higher out of wedlock pregancies than other races. As a result of this, black people

a) Have less power to shape the world around them.
b) Have more power to shape the world above them.

Black people are incarcerated at high rates than other races. As a result of this, black people

a) Have less power to shape the world around them.
b) Have more power to shape the world above them.
1.31.2009 2:16pm
Javert:

I would be especially vehement in agreeing with his point that markets tend to divert an enormous amount of resources towards the provision of luxury goods for the wealthy.
This is factually and historically false. An overwhelmingly high percentage of America's wealth is owned by the middle class. Historically, "an enormous amount of resources" has been put toward providing goods and services for the middle class. This is how most companies got wealthy in the past and how most do so today.
1.31.2009 2:52pm
pluribus:
Lily:

But the critical difference here is that we are not generally compelled (sic) to participate in a specific (sic) private enterprise whereas the same cannot be said for government enterprise.

True, but only because you inserted the word "specific" (sic) in your statement. If you want to eat in this country, you are compelled (sic) to buy your food from private enterprises. Yes, you can choose to starve, but few find that a reasonable alternative. You can say thanks that the government compels (sic) all private providers of food to obey the Pure Food and Drug Laws. That all private meat providers are compelled (sic) to submit from time to time to government inspection of their meats. That all private banks are compelled (sic) to maintain reserves. That all private automobile manufacturers are compelled (sic) to manufacture their products with due regard for prescribed safety measures. That all private factories are compelled (sic) to observe air pollution regulations. That all private drug manufacturers are compelled (sic) to provide safe and efficacious pharmaceuticals. That all private doctors and lawyers are compelled to be adequately trained and licensed before they offer their services to the public. That all private operators of motor vehicles are compelled (sic) to obey speed limits. So you see there is a whole lot of compulsion (sic) in the private sector, too. And you also see that I, too, can type (sic) on my computer.
1.31.2009 3:06pm
pluribus:
mcates:

Black people have higher out of wedlock pregancies than other races. As a result of this, black people

a) Have less power to shape the world around them.
b) Have more power to shape the world above them.

Black people are incarcerated at high rates than other races. As a result of this, black people

a) Have less power to shape the world around them.
b) Have more power to shape the world above them.

Disregarding the ethnic thrust of this example (which I find distasteful), the action of the government has generally been to give blacks more power to shape the world around them. In the nineteenth century, the government abolished black slavery. Before it did that, blacks were generally forbidden to marry. They were habitually raped by white slavemasters. Little wonder, then, that out of wedlock pregnancies were high among blacks. Are they higher now than they were then? I doubt it. Before the government abolished slavery, blacks were ritually incarcerated (i.e., enslaved in chattel bondage) from birth to death, as were their descendants as far in the future as any could imagine. Before the adoption of civil rights laws in the twentieth century, blacks were ritually denied the right to vote, to live where they chose to live, to marry who they chose to marry, to enter white hotels by the front door, to drink from public fountains marked "for whites only," to attend the same schools that whites attended. Now they can do all of these things, thanks to government action. Have the government's actions with respect to blacks generally been positive or negative?
1.31.2009 3:20pm
pluribus:
Javert:

This is factually and historically false.

I am trying to understand this. Can a statement be facually true but historically false? Or historically true but factually false? Are historical and factual falsity generally congruent, or do they usually diverge? Is it enough to simply say "false," or must falsity be qualified? The mind boggles.
1.31.2009 3:25pm
Ken Arromdee:
Would you prefer to privatize the regulation of fraud, defamation, threats, and similar examples of offensive speech?

Your justification for having the government regulate those is not "it's speech, and regulating speech is, in general, the government's business". So those aren't even examples.
1.31.2009 3:33pm
David Welker (www):

What you're advocating is basically the worldwide guaranty of positive rights, which would require forced worldwide redistribution of property - basically a degree of worldwide communism.


That is quite a leap, isn't it.

It seems to that logic of your response seems to not to be to disagree with my assertions, but instead assume that it implies a certain policy response and reject it on that basis.

There are two problems with that. Acknowledging a particular problem does not imply any particular policy response. Second, whether you like or dislike a policy response that you (incorrectly) imagine is required in response to a problem is irrelevant to whether the problem exists.

My point is that the private sector does not maximize efficiency when efficiency is defined a certain way.

Do you disagree with any of the following assertions:

(1) Preventing malaria provides more benefits to humans than grooming Fluffy three times a day (or insert other frivolous expenditure here if you really love poodles).

(2) The market sometimes favors the allocation of resources to grooming Fluffy than to preventing malaria.

Look, to defend the use of markets over government in a particular context, that does not mean that one has to harbor illusions about markets. Markets do not have to be perfect to be a better solution than government in particular contexts because government isn't perfect either.

My point in saying that markets are not perfect was merely to point out that a general bias against government action on the theory that markets are so much more effective at allocating resources is unjustified. We have reason to question whether markets really are efficient at allocating resources in particular circumstances.


For someone who has a problem with generalizations you seem to make a lot of them.


Did you actually read what I said about generalization? Here is what I said in a nutshell:

That you cannot make a generalization against generalizations doesn't mean that Somin's huge generalization, which involves a lot of sloppy thinking, is justified.

Look, I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my post. But, it is quite evident that you did not take the time to read it carefully. You also, as illustrated above, have a tendency to jump to unwarranted conclusions about what must follow (particular policy responses that you find distasteful) if my assertions are true. In this way, you avoid the issue of whether or not those assertions are true.

Overall, I am not going to spend any more time responding to your response, given your failure to read very carefully. The main issue I have is your assertion that I am categorically against generalization, which is clearly and obviously false. What I am against is sloppy generalizations based on premises that are only right some of the time (i.e. the private sector has better incentives). I think even a semi-careful reading would have prevented you from coming to this conclusion. How is is that you go from reading about several generalizations that I am willing to make and explicitly acknowledge as such to the conclusion I am somehow against all generalizations? The only plausible explanation, it seems to me, is careless reading.
1.31.2009 3:37pm
Lily (mail):
"If you want to eat in this country, you are compelled (sic) to buy your food from private enterprises."

Yes, but not a specific private enterprise. I can choose to eat beans rather than peanut butter. I can also grow my own veggies. I can choose chicken not salmon. I can choose the company / grower from which I purchase my food.

And by the way, I have never argued for NO regulation or No government. You put words in my mouth to provide a point of argument for yourself.
1.31.2009 3:56pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Given all the layoffs in private industry, has anyone heard of any layoffs in the federal government? It would seem a greater and greater share of tax revenue will be going to pay federal employees. Does anyone know if it is possible to layoff 10,000 direct federal government employees?
1.31.2009 4:08pm
trad and anon:
I agree with your first sentence. I don't think there is any doubt of that.

However, the founders also warned us against excess government.

Now if you are saying that the "new" vision for American's is to have exess government, then you might have a point.

But that would still be something the founders warned us against.
That excess government is bad is a tautology. The question is what constitutes excess. Lots of liberals think our military spending is excessive, for example, while most conservatives disagree. Even the founders differed on what constituted excess: consider the debates about a national bank, for example.

In any case, why anyone cares about what the founders thought is beyond me. They didn't have the benefit of our (and the world's) last 200+ years of experience. They knew nothing of modern economics, political science, or psychology. They were all abominably racist, sexist, and homophobic: many even supported the evil institution of slavery.

Of course, if you are an original-intent originalist, then their views are very relevant to interpreting the original Constitution + 10. But their views are an extremely poor guide to deciding what is good policy.
1.31.2009 4:18pm
mcates (mail):
pluribus,

I made no case for an overall postive or negative treatment of blacks by the federal government.

If you find that example distasteful, then you should go back and discuss it with Trad and anon.

I freely admitted that the gov't can have a positive role in my very first post. I wish others would stop pretending as if I had not.
1.31.2009 4:19pm
mcates (mail):

In any case, why anyone cares about what the founders thought is beyond me.


Because they founded and laid the groundwork for the most successful and powerful country the world has known?

I would suggest that all aspects of government should be limited to the necessary, just as recessions teach a corporation what is necessary and unnecessary.

Unfortunately, the government we have created at this juncture has no such limitations as a recession.
1.31.2009 4:27pm
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

My problem with this statement is not that it has no general presumption about limiting government power, but rather that it has no general presumptions at all. The only positive declaration implied by the statement is that what "works" is important; but without any idea of what "working" is, how are we the listeners supposed to learn anything from this statement? Without any semantic content in the statement, listeners are free to attach any interpretation they want to it, making Obama into a tabula rasa for everyone's hopes and fears. Everyone's in favor of things working; the problem is that nobody can agree on how to proceed to arrive at the "working" conclusion. Obama's statement, like many before it, expresses the obvious and skips all the controversy that comes attached.

David Welker:
My point is that the private sector does not maximize efficiency when efficiency is defined a certain way.

Do you disagree with any of the following assertions:

(1) Preventing malaria provides more benefits to humans than grooming Fluffy three times a day (or insert other frivolous expenditure here if you really love poodles).

(2) The market sometimes favors the allocation of resources to grooming Fluffy than to preventing malaria.


I don't necessarily disagree with you, but I just want to offer that the question should not be whether the private sector maximizes efficiency for a given area, but whether it does so better than the government could. As written, this section lends itself to the former question, which is really irrelevant to the discussion. You seem to understand that, which is why you post this later in your comment:
Look, to defend the use of markets over government in a particular context, that does not mean that one has to harbor illusions about markets. Markets do not have to be perfect to be a better solution than government in particular contexts because government isn't perfect either.


But then you seem to return to defending the point that markets aren't perfect:
My point in saying that markets are not perfect was merely to point out that a general bias against government action on the theory that markets are so much more effective at allocating resources is unjustified. We have reason to question whether markets really are efficient at allocating resources in particular circumstances.


You note that markets aren't perfect, and try to use that to say that the government is better than the markets in certain sectors. But the first part of that statement is an insufficient (though necessary) condition to establishing the second part. If the government does worse than the private sector in most areas, even if the private sector does poorly as a rule, one can justify having a general presumption against government action. If you could stick to arguing the relative merits of markets vs. government (as opposed to the absolute merits of either), you'd make a much stronger case.
1.31.2009 4:43pm
pluribus:
Lily:

And by the way, I have never argued for NO regulation or No government. You put words in my mouth to provide a point of argument for yourself.

I went back and looked at my post to see where I had put words in your mouth, and I didn't see it. I try not to do that, as it's really bad form. Can you back up your allegation with a specific example?
1.31.2009 4:49pm
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
On a side note, since we're talking about thought experiments, I would love to conduct this little thought experiment:

1) Tell each and every department of some government (federal, state, local) to cut 10% of its discretionary budget without cutting any necessary programs.
2) Organize an independent group of people to examine the discretionary budget of that government and cut 10% from each sector without cutting any necessary programs.

I predict that the independent group would succeed in cutting 10% from the budget it's looking at, without more than 5% of the cuts being from necessary programs; further, I predict that the independent group would find far more to cut than the government itself would.

Of course, such a thought experiment is impractical. It would entail an enormous amount of effort on the part of the government in question, as well as the independent group. It would also require a good deal of clarification - for example, "necessary" would have to be defined in more detail. But such an experiment would be incredibly useful in opening eyes regarding the degree of waste and unnecessary expenditure in government programs.
1.31.2009 4:59pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"(1) Preventing malaria provides more benefits to humans than grooming Fluffy three times a day (or insert other frivolous expenditure here if you really love poodles).

(2) The market sometimes favors the allocation of resources to grooming Fluffy than to preventing malaria."


Judy is part of humanity, doesn't have malaria, and lives in an area where the probability of contracting malaria is so low as to be zero. Marginal efforts to prevent malaria in other parts of the world have no benefit to her.

So, she tells Fluffy to put on her best collar, and they take off for the day spa. The incremental benefit to Judy of grooming Fluffy is greater than the benefit of preventing malaria in Kenya.

Now, if we multiply Judy by a few billion, it becomes hard to speak of benefits to humanity without dividing humanity into specific groups with different self interests.
1.31.2009 4:59pm
pluribus:
Obama said:

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Math_Mage replied:

My problem with this statement is not that it has no general presumption about limiting government power, but rather that it has no general presumptions at all.

No, the presumption is that government should work and that when it does it should be supported and when it doesn't it should be corrected. It's a judgment based on practicality rather than an ideology.

The only positive declaration implied by the statement is that what "works" is important; but without any idea of what "working" is, how are we the listeners supposed to learn anything from this statement? Without any semantic content in the statement, listeners are free to attach any interpretation they want to it, making Obama into a tabula rasa for everyone's hopes and fears.

No, the people will decide what "working" is. It will be an ongoing process--as it has been for the first two centuries of our experiment in self-government. The people will make their voices heard through their exercise of free speech and the democratic process, which is ultimately expressed at the polls. Everybody will not agree--they never do. It is enough if a majority agree and express their opinions through the democratic process.

Everyone's in favor of things working; the problem is that nobody can agree on how to proceed to arrive at the "working" conclusion.

No, the people are competent to decide that in the manner described above. Elections are powerful tools.

Obama's statement, like many before it, expresses the obvious and skips all the controversy that comes attached.

No. Your statement is a naked assertion, without any logic or evidence to support it. When do people decide that a private enterprise is "working?" They decide that by their patronage, according to standards they themselves establish. When do people decide that a government program is "working?" They decide that when they express themselves in polls, through the free press, and ultimately when they vote. It's called democracy. It has been tried in this country for a couple of hundred years now. It's far from perfect, but it's far from a failure either. It's still a work in progress--with emphasis on the "progress."
1.31.2009 5:09pm
pluribus:
mcates:

I made no case for an overall postive or negative treatment of blacks by the federal government.

If you find that example distasteful, then you should go back and discuss it with Trad and anon.

No. The example given by Trad and anon did not denigrate a racial group. Yours did. That's why I find it distasteful.
1.31.2009 5:16pm
Randy R. (mail):
""There are times when government does work. We needed more, not less, government regulation of the mortgage markets that led us into this mess."
Was the second sentence intended to support the first? It actually contradicts it.
Oohhh, good catch! I guess it just means that Randy R. is part of the "the government we have may be flawed, but the government I imagine is perfect" camp. "

The insurance industry is tightly regulated, one of the tightest of all industries. Each state has its own insurance commission, and some states require more in terms of regulation than others.

As a result, one will notice that the insurance industry has had few scandals or need for bailouts in recent memory. Perhaps if Wall Street were as tightly regulated, then the current economic mess would not have occured?

But let's not even go that far. I would assume that if a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes, you would agree that those are the exact situations in which we citizens would demand a full government response that is competent,quick and comprehenive.

Indeed, it is such services that separate us from the yahoo governments around the world that are more known for corruption than caring for distressed citizenry.
1.31.2009 5:22pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

This is a silly statement. There are two very valid questions, and neither negates the value of considering the other.
1.31.2009 5:49pm
paul lukasiak (mail):
And I understand why you would mention Madoff, but why did you mention Exxon? Is there some scandal involving them that I haven't heard about?
_
d'oh! meant enron! ;) But give me enough time, and I'm sure I could find something to blame Exxon for as well.
_
We do it with malpractice lawsuits in the medical field. I don't see why it couldn't be done in the financial field as well.
_
it can be done in the financial field -- the problem is that that the overwhelming majority of cases of "medical malpractice" are not "fraudulently practiced medicine", but incompetently practiced medicine.
_
Now I don't think that you really want financial people sued for doing their jobs "incompetently", do you?
_
the losses sustained because outright fraud within the financial sector is pretty small when compare to the losses that have been incurred because of the long term consequences of decisions that were made in the name of "increasing/maintaining stockholder value". Financial sector executives made bad investment decisions, but did so in a manner fully consistent with their legal obligation to stockholders at that time
_
Fannie &Freddie Mae are perfect examples of this. They were in the "mortgage bundling" business, but didn't bundle subprime mortgages. But when other businesses got into the bundling business, and combined both "prime" and "subprime" mortgages in the same bundle, Fannie &Freddie started losing market share of the non-subprime market. That meant fewer fees collected by Fannie &Freddie, which translated in to lower return on investment for their stockholders.
As a result, in order to meet their legal obligations to their stockholders (who were demanding the best returns possible) Fannie and Freddie lowered their standards, and started marketing bundled mortgages that included "sub-prime" mortgages.
_
In retrospect, doing so was a very bad decision. But at the time, it not only made perfect sense, the executives running Fannie &Freddie were practically compelled by the law regarding acting in the interest of stockholders to lower their standards.
_
"The market" does not discriminate between genuine efficiency and bad ideas that look good in the short term. It literally compels corporations to engage in lowest common denominator practices, because all anyone real cares about anymore is short term gains, and if you as an executive try to buck the tide of "acceptable albeit unwise practices" you'll be out of a job.
1.31.2009 5:56pm
trad and anon:
In any case, why anyone cares about what the founders thought is beyond me.
Because they founded and laid the groundwork for the most successful and powerful country the world has known?
You might notice that we got there by ignoring their advice. Notice any foreign entanglements lately? Or a standing army? I'm sure we'd have won the Cold War without those.
1.31.2009 6:04pm
pluribus:
Elliot123:

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

This is a silly statement. There are two very valid questions, and neither negates the value of considering the other.

Don't you think it is "silly" to omit a vital part of his question--the words "we ask today?" He is not speaking about 1933 and the dawn of the New Deal, or 1981 and the dawn of Reaganism, but about 2009. Many would argue that in 1933 the government needed to be bigger to cope with a by-then nearly four-year-old depressin that was getting progressively worse, and the fact that many necessary institutions (SEC, FDIC, Social Security, etc.) did not even exist. Many would argue that in 1981 the government was bloated and needed to be cut down to size. Today, the government is large (larger at the end of GWB's president than it was at the beginning of Reagan's) yet it is still not addressing some critical problems. So the question "we ask today" is whether government works. I don't find that "silly" at all.
1.31.2009 6:12pm
MarkField (mail):

The point is that these are considered exceptions to the general rule. The government does regulate certain aspects of speech and religion; but we don't assume that doing so is right by default unless we have a specific reason to make a specific regulation. The government can't just regulate speech on the grounds that it's the government's prerogative to regulate speech.


We arrived at the "general rule" because, through long historical experience, we realized what the general rule ought to be. Similarly, we have learned through long historical experience that markets work very well sometimes. But in both cases the fundamental point is that we want a government that "works" for We, the People. That is the overriding goal; it's not the overriding goal to deify the market of things or ideas. In both cases we recognize that government regulation needs to be appropriate to underlying principles, so we only undertake it when it "works".


However, the founders also warned us against excess government.


Some of them did (Jefferson's the standard example). Some didn't (Hamilton and Jay would be good examples).

The fact is, though, that nobody wants "excess" government. No liberal I know -- and I know many -- wants government for the sake of government. They want government because they see a problem which the market or society otherwise isn't solving, but which otherwise seems solveable. That's part of what we mean when we say we want a government that "works".
1.31.2009 6:15pm
trad and anon:
The fact is, though, that nobody wants "excess" government. No liberal I know -- and I know many -- wants government for the sake of government. They want government because they see a problem which the market or society otherwise isn't solving, but which otherwise seems solveable. That's part of what we mean when we say we want a government that "works".
I would add that liberals often oppose expansion of government. See, e.g., the Patriot Act, the Iraq War Resolution, and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.
1.31.2009 6:28pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"Don't you think it is "silly" to omit a vital part of his question--the words "we ask today?"

No. I don't find it silly to omit the fact that he spoke last week. I presume we all know that, and I presume we all know he is speaking about today's problems, not those faced by Roosevelt or Reagan. I see nothing about today that absolves te president from asking either question. Is there something?

So the question "we ask today" is whether government works. I don't find that "silly" at all.

It is not silly to ask if government works; that is a necessary question. But it is silly to refuse to ask if governemnt is too big or too small. It is silly to say one question is important, while the other doesn't need to be considered. That is an abdication of a chief executive's responsibility.

It would be equally silly for the CEO of GM or GE to say he won't consider if the company is too big or too small, in too many product lines or not enough, overstaffed or understaffed.
1.31.2009 6:32pm
paul lukasiak (mail):
Is government too big (or small) isn't the question -- the real question is whether the government is doing what it needs to do, and doing it efficiently.
_
Progressives like myself see the last eight years as examples of the government doing stuff it had no business doing (see Iraq), not doing stuff it should have been doing (regulating -- and enforcing regulation -- of the private sector), and being grossly inefficient in doing what it has done (the big bailout is the most glaring example.)
_
the real lesson of the Bush years is that its a horrible idea to put in charge of government people who don't like government. I'd no more expect a Republican president to run an effective government than I would expect a Satanist to run a Christian bookstore.
_
(on the other side of the equation, of course, is that "success" achieved by those who believe in something cannot be expanded because its that belief, rather than the protocols established under that belief, that create the success. For example, how many eductional "theories" work because they were espoused by people who believed in them and were invested in their success, but when those theories are put into "general" practice, don't work. Charter schools are one such idea....)
1.31.2009 6:56pm
Paul Zrimsek (mail):

As a result, one will notice that the insurance industry has had few scandals or need for bailouts in recent memory. Perhaps if Wall Street were as tightly regulated, then the current economic mess would not have occured?

AIG was an insurance company. Sarbanes-Oxley was a tightening of regulation on Wall Street-- which did bugger-all to stop the bubble after the one it was designed for. Anyone who thinks only generals are always fighting the last war has never met a regulator!

Regulation can do good it applies to actions everyone agrees are abusive or excessively risky, but which ordinary market actors lack incentive to find out about and stop. They're unlikely to save you from asset bubbles or New Paradigms because these (almost by definition) take off only when practically everyone believes in them. Call upon regulators at a time like that and you'll find only that they listen to the same experts as everyone else.
1.31.2009 7:25pm
AlanDownunder (mail):
Yes there's the private v public thing, but can we in that context ignore private-cum-public. Cheney was merely the pinnacle of the iceberg. Eisenhower warned us.

I'll put my hands up and admit that, in one sense, private-cum-public is devastatingly efficient. Not in Welker's sensible sense, though.

As for incentive, have we not seen pervasive over-incentivised insanity (and, dare I add, inefficiency) recently? Are we not seeing it still? The over-incentivisation is looking like it leads to the insanity. Those flights from Detroit. Fuld. Thain. Were these kinds of guys unnselfconsciously sociopathic morons before they got mega-rich?

If you're getting the vapours above how bloated and inefficient the Obama administration could be, do us all favour and slip in the odd prayer for a lean and efficient private sector; and please no jokes about shareholder democracy.

And yes Paul, he lost me as well then he adopted the equation of freedom of speech with freedom to ignore the need for disaster relief as a basis for purportedly reasoned discourse.

There are lawyers who well understand the notion of sui juris but can't see its applicability even when it's biting them in the bum. All they can offer is a belated and grudging concession that circumstances forcing a rebuttal of one of their rebuttable presumption have arisen - circumstances they we must understand as being in no way due to their litany of presumptions.
1.31.2009 7:53pm
Automatic Caution Door:
It's kind of funny when you step back and look at it: This thread is full of passionate, detailed, prolific, eloquent, well-argued commentary about something that some 27-year-old dude wrote on his laptop at a Starbucks last month.

(A really bad 27-year-old writer, to boot. See: "raging storms," etc.)
1.31.2009 8:14pm
Guest1234:

Is government too big (or small) isn't the question


Sorry, but for many of us, it is the question. Before we ask if government is doing its job, we should determine what, exactly, is its job.

For myself, I think government is far too involved in the private lives of its people. It takes too much of the hard earned dollars of its citizens, and makes too many laws restricting their freedoms.

I am tired of all the well meaning busybodies in our country who feel they have the right to govern how the rest of us live. And I am really tired of paying for it all.
1.31.2009 8:16pm
Guest1234:

It's kind of funny when you step back and look at it: This thread is full of passionate, detailed, prolific, eloquent, well-argued commentary about something that some 27-year-old dude wrote on his laptop at a Starbucks last month


Thank you for pointing this out. When I heard that Obama's top speech writer was a 27 year old, I thought, well, that explains a lot. Obama's speeches always sound to me like a lot of feel good phrases strung together. Just what a kid would think was profound.
1.31.2009 8:21pm
PC:
An overwhelmingly high percentage of America's wealth is owned by the middle class

Cite? From the sources I've seen the top 10% controls around 70% of the wealth.
1.31.2009 8:39pm
AlanDownunder (mail):

It's kind of funny when you step back and look at it: This thread is full of passionate, detailed, prolific, eloquent, well-argued commentary about something that some 27-year-old dude wrote on his laptop at a Starbucks last month.


Ilya's only 27?
1.31.2009 8:43pm
Tritium (mail):
But where does the Federal Government Derive it's Powers? If it wishes to obtain additional powers, from what source must it be obtained?

You would think more attention would be focussed on the Constitutionality of Congress and the Federal Government. Do we want to maintain a Government that gives privilidge to business before it considers issues relating to the common person? Article I Constitutes Congress. Article V. Constitution the Amendment Process. In Article V, it refers to "Congress" what it must do in addition to the law that Constitutes Congress in Article I. An amendment that does not change the Constitutional Government is merely a declaration, which is not Unconstitutional, because it's considered to be obvious by definition. Any amendment that requires an alteration of any power in the Constitution requires ratification by the people. The people are the ONLY source in which powers may be delegated and restrictions on powers removed.

The Government is getting too big, it cannot even afford itself. We still have a deficit from the last recession... so one would think it important to pay those debts off. The Civil War was estimated by the U.S. government in Jan. 1863 that the war was costing $2.5 million daily. A final official estimate in 1879 totaled $6,190,000,000. The Confederacy spent perhaps $2,099,808,707. By 1906 another $3.3 billion already had been spent by the U.S. government on Northerners' pensions and other veterans' benefits for former Federal soldiers. Southern states and private philanthropy provided benefits to the Confederate veterans. The amount spent on benefits eventually well exceeded the war's original cost.

The original Debt had been paid off rather quickly... considering where we are today... We're not even reducing debt.. nor have we since the Federal Reserve came into play.
1.31.2009 10:01pm
David Warner:
Look, regulation is not the same as social engineering. Less of the latter and better of the former, please. Can we agree on that?

Oh, and Welker, I suppose you'd approve of some commissar pronouncing the time you spend on the internet "frivolous" and requisitioning it for the good of the people? Say, in building better levees for New Orleans? Why is it that so many gave freely of their own time and resources to aid in the recovery? Surely such things never happen when people are left on their own to choose what to do, correct?

Liberals aren't suspicious of centralized power because its "inefficient", but rather because such power is more easily abused and likely to curtail the liberty that created the resources that made those "frivolous" expenditures possible in the first place. Seriously, did you miss the entire 20th century?

Now I'm going to have to change my handle to avoid getting mixed up with your incessant inanity.
1.31.2009 10:02pm
Tritium (mail):
The Government was created to guarantee LIBERTY for "We the People". But somehow Congress has gotten confused. The people created government to protect liberty. The Government creates corporations, as a matter of law. The police must follow the Constitution. Can Congress create a privately owned police force that is exempt from following the Constitution? Lines were drawn, and circumstances, whether intentional or not, ignored the expansion of Government. A Tactic that destroyed many free nations before.. To create circumstances in which the 'free people' must rely on Government for basic living necessities. Control Trade, Monetary Policy, and Military. Use those forces for a cause most agreeable to the people, even though it may be an oxymoron. Should there be vengence from the declared enemies... the only ones who pay the price are "We the people."

There was a reason why the Bush Family left the "Fatherland" to come to America in the 18th Century. They were run out of the country, having experience "political persecution", and arrived with a great deal of wealth.

Obviously... America received the treasonous political families to ever exist in history... escaping death.
1.31.2009 11:06pm
Closet Libertarian (www):
Size matters for another reason -- the government is experiencing diminishing returns to scale. The redundancy and mismanagement increases with the size.

The cuts to defense (details to come later) will probably be big enough to offset the stimulus in the first few years. Maybe some cuts are in order but they are counter to the stimulus.
1.31.2009 11:51pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"Is government too big (or small) isn't the question -- the real question is whether the government is doing what it needs to do, and doing it efficiently.


Size of government is an important question.
What government is doing is an important quetsion.
Whether it is doing it efficiently is an important question.

The notion that some questions shouldn't be asked is silly. The notion that some questions are real questions, while others are not is equally silly.
2.1.2009 1:04am
Randy R. (mail):
"AIG was an insurance company. Sarbanes-Oxley was a tightening of regulation on Wall Street--"

Mea culpa. I should have quit when I was ahead....
2.1.2009 1:21am
David Welker (www):

Oh, and Welker, I suppose you'd approve of some commissar pronouncing the time you spend on the internet "frivolous" and requisitioning it for the good of the people?


You suppose wrong. It really is interesting the insane conclusions that people come up with.
2.1.2009 2:50am
David Welker (www):
Math_Mage,

If you look at Somin's post above, it seems to rest on the assertion that the government is less than perfect because of (1) incentive problems, (2) rational ignorance of voters, and (3) information problems.

In this context, pointing out that there are also imperfections involved with markets is relevant. When markets are ALSO imperfect, then arguments pointing out imperfections in government in an attempt to establish presumptions that weigh heavily against solutions involving some degree of government action are less sensible.

Also, it very much strengthens my ultimate point, which is that you need to look at particular proposals on a more case-by-case basis rather than relying on crude generalizations. While I think it would be fine (and even necessary in the absence of hard evidence) to be guided by certain much more nuanced generalizations (i.e. the market is better at manufacturing widgets and therefore is likely to be better at manufacturing things that are a lot like widgets), I do not approve of conclusions at the level of generality that Somin would wish to make. The point that markets also exhibit imperfections greatly strengthens the point that you really do have to look at the specific case and know something about the particular context rather than trying to short-circuit the analysis.
2.1.2009 3:15am
Nick056:
With all due respect to Prof. Somin, several of his points strike me as quotes from the gospel of libertarian capitalism, as opposed to fresh analysis. Not to say that's a bad thing. The gospel of capitalism is the fairest and best economic gospel we've got. But if I may worry some of its notions a bit, largely by quoting from the gospel of liberal capitalism:

The private sector provides excellent incentives for efficiency, but what it's ultimately incentivizing is one notion: cash-in-hand. Anything which might be a reasonable goal of a decent society that cannot be accomplished by persuading the organs of industry that they will obtain more cash at day's end, is not accomplished unless by individuals forming interest groups or by the government. One example: a super Wal Mart is about to be erected very near Wildnerness battle site outside Fredericksburg, VA. Surely there are many perspectives on the utility of this, but one suggests that because private interest groups couldn't buy the land, we as citizens are losing something because preservations didn't translate into cash-in-hand for business interests and private opposition, though passionate, was underfunded compared to Wal Mart. Perhaps as consumers and workers and investors we've gained something. As Americans? We've lost. A government declaration of domain would preserve for us as citizens what we may lose as economic agents. This is one example.

Another is that we have Social Security to compensate for the allowance that some people upon retirement have no family to care for them, and especially in a recession, might be in very dire straits. We believe that no private response to this can be as sweeping and certain a guarantee as a government response, and so, the FICA taxes we lose as economic agents, we gain back as citizens who've decided to provide each other some measure of security in retirement. Of course that conversation can be complicated greatly. (I would further argue that Social Security isn't just about feeling good as citizens, but that it makes economic sense; however, a fellow-feeling for others was part of the philosophical basis for its passage and creation.) But the balance is suggested: what might be lost as direct purchasing power buys instead a deeper social compact. And, as the President said, if it works -- truly deepens that compact by meeting its goals -- we keep it.

My second point is shorter. Voter ignorance is not an argument for small government. It's an argument for government by the enlightened. Again, the philosophic idea of a social compact instructs us that the government is one tool availiable to citizens of a coountry that can mediate conflicts as well as remedy wrongs. We ought to use it as a tool with a full understanding of its potential, not with a faith that it can remedy all wrongs or merely multiply them.
2.1.2009 4:19am
David Warner:
Welker,

The alternative to more government is not necessarily more markets - you've presented a false dichotomy. There are wide areas of human endeavor (and non-endeavor!) that fall into neither category. So to turn your argument on its head, noting the flaws in markets does not necessarily argue for more government power.

Nick056,

"We believe that no private response to this can be as sweeping and certain a guarantee as a government response, and so, the FICA taxes we lose as economic agents, we gain back as citizens who've decided to provide each other some measure of security in retirement."

Is that the royal we? A big chunk of we believe no such thing, and an insurance policy would be far preferable, and more economically sound, than the inter-generational travesty that is Social Security.
2.1.2009 8:27am
Javert:

So the question "we ask today" is whether government works.
Toward what end -- freedom or slavery? That is the fundamental question.
2.1.2009 10:07am
Sarcastro (www):
"[I]t's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work--work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."


You can always tell a liberals by their relying on reforming government, not shrinking it.

The size heuristic may not be right all of the time, but Ima use it as much as I can because it resonates with the People!

It's not demagoguery if I'm right!
2.1.2009 10:13am
Randy R. (mail):
Javert: "Toward what end -- freedom or slavery? That is the fundamental question."

Oh please. This is just the sort of hyperbole that Obama is trying to counter, the notion that any gov't intervention leads to slavery.

Which is particularly ironic. We actually did have real slavery in this country, at a time when there was much less government. Buying and selling people -- what could be the highest and best use of capitalism? It only took a war and strong government intervention to end it.

You see -- we can both play those games, and it serves no useful purpose. This is exactly why people hold Obama in high regard. He is saying that the time has passed for this sort of fear mongering, and I for one agree with him.
2.1.2009 11:40am
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
LN:

That's why companies and corporations simply can't work. It's pure logic. Our economy must be dependent on self-employed people.

There would be many more self-employed workers (independent contractors) were it not for IRC 1706, which was intended to suppress small competitors of the (then) Big Eight accounting firms, who got Senator Pat Moynihan to introduce it when they had aspirations of locking up computer sonsulting business among themselves. (That didn't work out well as people came to discover they were incompetent in that field.)

Most regulatory measures are supported by the big players to suppress their small or new competitors. Regulation seldom works to control the biggies.
2.1.2009 12:35pm
trad and anon:
I don't think "works" is nearly as problematic a concept as a lot of Obama's critics seem to think. There are some things that pretty much everyone other than the most misanthropic agrees are a good thing. Low unemployment, physical and mental health, a swift end to the recession, kids not growing up in poverty, safety from violent crime and terrorism, and adequate nutrition all come to mind as examples. You could in theory be a principled misanthrope but there aren't many people like that.

The idea is that "big government" isn't good or bad in itself, but is good or bad insofar as it succeeds or fails in producing a society where people have those things. They don't have to be produced by government programs—it would be fine if a policy of nonintervention produced them too.

Of course, there are a lot of more controversial things that people disagree about whether they're good or bad in themselves. Criminalization of homosexual sex, say, or abortion, or capital punishment. But those aren't that relevant to things like the stimulus package.
2.1.2009 1:06pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
Paul Zrimsek:

Regulation can do good it applies to actions everyone agrees are abusive or excessively risky, but which ordinary market actors lack incentive to find out about and stop. They're unlikely to save you from asset bubbles or New Paradigms because these (almost by definition) take off only when practically everyone believes in them. Call upon regulators at a time like that and you'll find only that they listen to the same experts as everyone else.

Correct, which is why we need to consider other forms of public intervention than conventional regulation. Again, the U.S. Constitution points the way: grand juries. There is nothing to prevent having grand juries investigate complaints of mismanagement in both the public and private sectors, or even in just exploring for pathological behaviors without relying on any established regulatory standards. They would be composed not of professionals that could be captured by their targets, but of citizens who could take a fresh look and challenge practices they find dangerous or even just don't understand. (Not being able to understand a complex financial derivative and drawing attention to that might have avoided the meltdown.) The grand juries could but need not return criminal indictments. They could just return presentments wkith findings that would be acted on by shareholders or members.

This kind of discovery can be done today only at great expense by someone suing the company, and in most cases what they can sue for doesn't allow for the kind of free-ranging discovery and disclosure that would be needed to prick bubbles. Grand juries could fill the role at lower cost and might prevent a lot of bubbles from ever forming.

When organizations become not only too large to fail but too well connected and too disposed to follow the same business strategies at the same time, they function as a single large organization, but without the few principal-agent controls that might operate within an organization. That makes them proper subjects for grand jury investigation (but without control by a prosecutor, who needs to be kept in the proper role of a witness/complainant and not a manager).
2.1.2009 1:14pm
Javert:

Javert: "Toward what end -- freedom or slavery? That is the fundamental question."

Oh please. This is just the sort of hyperbole that Obama is trying to counter, the notion that any gov't intervention leads to slavery.

Which is particularly ironic. We actually did have real slavery in this country, at a time when there was much less government. Buying and selling people -- what could be the highest and best use of capitalism? It only took a war and strong government intervention to end it.

You see -- we can both play those games, and it serves no useful purpose. This is exactly why people hold Obama in high regard. He is saying that the time has passed for this sort of fear mongering, and I for one agree with him.
This is just the type of blindness that Franklin warned against when he said: "A Republic if you can keep it."
2.1.2009 1:15pm
Sarcastro (www):
You all know I'm not one for hyperbole, so believe me when I say ya gotta watch out for the hidden slavery of governmental services. It may seem like opportunity, but really it's slavery and ya don't even know it!

Sweden, for instance, is a country of slaves cleverly disguised as fun-loving blondes.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, which is why I keep tabs on as many Swedes as possible.
2.1.2009 1:19pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"One example: a super Wal Mart is about to be erected very near Wildnerness battle site outside Fredericksburg, VA. Surely there are many perspectives on the utility of this, but one suggests that because private interest groups couldn't buy the land, we as citizens are losing something because preservations didn't translate into cash-in-hand for business interests and private opposition, though passionate, was underfunded compared to Wal Mart.

If it is near the battle site, then exactly what have Americans lost?

Another perspecitive is that 300 million Americans don't care about a site near a battle site, so they lost nothing they valued.

This sounds much more like a small private group that values a site and wants the rest of us to give it to them.
2.1.2009 1:19pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
One of the persistent mistakes made by progressives who imagine that government regulation and programs could work wonderfully well "if only the right people" were in charge, is that the "right people" don't get to hire only other "right people". They have to hire on more or less a first-come basis from among the pool of candidates who pass civil service exams, and most of those just want a job and don't care about the mission of the "right people". As often as not the candidate pool is loaded with people sponsored by the special interests the agency would try to regulate, and who will continue to report and respond to direction from their sponsors. Critics focus on the "revolving door" of lobbyists being appointed to or from government positions, but tend to overlook that this occurs even more at the lower staff levels where most of the real work gets done and most of the real power is exercised.

The only method anyhone has found of avoiding undue influence in public choice is sortition in the selection of the decisionmakers. We are not going to solve these problems unless or until we make effective use of juries, grand or trial, throughout the various systems. But even sortition depends on a high level of virtue on the part of the jury pool, and we are neglecting to develop that kind of virtue in our children.
2.1.2009 1:29pm
Sarcastro (www):
Yep, the government only hires total losers, which is why we really need to privatize things. Because private companies totally only hire real winners.

Because there is no competition in government jobs. It's just that exam and that's it! Unlike private companies, where everyone is hungry and totally committed to the work.

It's amazing to me the government continues to function what with all the idiots it HAS to hire.

Finally, I would like to note that most of America doesn't care about most of our cultural sites, so we should really bulldoze them all. Or at least put a mall right next door, if you like to go low impact.
2.1.2009 2:57pm
Guest1234:

It's amazing to me the government continues to function what with all the idiots it HAS to hire


When you have no fear of failure (ie losing your job), you are not likely to do you best work.
2.1.2009 3:57pm
Guest1234:

Javert: "Toward what end -- freedom or slavery? That is the fundamental question."

Oh please. This is just the sort of hyperbole that Obama is trying to counter, the notion that any gov't intervention leads to slavery.



Oh, I don't know. When I have to work 5 1/2 months to pay for things for other people, I feel enslaved.
2.1.2009 4:01pm
Sarcastro (www):
Guest1234 you should do what I do and reject civilization. Life may be difficult up on the mountain pass where I keep my hermitage, but at least there's wifi. And, of course, you're free!

And I do agree that fear of losing one's job is determinative in making government worse than private industry at everything. The key to this insight is to understand that the incentives for a private firm and the government are exactly the same.
2.1.2009 4:06pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Which is particularly ironic. We actually did have real slavery in this country, at a time when there was much less government. Buying and selling people -- what could be the highest and best use of capitalism? It only took a war and strong government intervention to end it.
Pluribus above said something similar:
Disregarding the ethnic thrust of this example (which I find distasteful), the action of the government has generally been to give blacks more power to shape the world around them. In the nineteenth century, the government abolished black slavery. Before it did that, blacks were generally forbidden to marry. They were habitually raped by white slavemasters. Little wonder, then, that out of wedlock pregnancies were high among blacks. Are they higher now than they were then? I doubt it. Before the government abolished slavery, blacks were ritually incarcerated (i.e., enslaved in chattel bondage) from birth to death, as were their descendants as far in the future as any could imagine. Before the adoption of civil rights laws in the twentieth century, blacks were ritually denied the right to vote, to live where they chose to live, to marry who they chose to marry, to enter white hotels by the front door, to drink from public fountains marked "for whites only," to attend the same schools that whites attended. Now they can do all of these things, thanks to government action. Have the government's actions with respect to blacks generally been positive or negative?
The answer is negative. Crediting government for abolishing slavery is like crediting Joseph Mengele for administering CPR to one of his "patients." Slavery was sustained by government. To hear you people talk, slavery suddenly appeared one day, and then one day beneficent government came in, like Moses sent by God, to end it. How do you think millions of people were kept in bondage by a relative handful of slave owners? What do you think kept slaves from defending themselves, hell from just walking away?

It makes even less sense to say that government protected people from segregated schools or discrimination in marriage, voting, or public water fountains. These are solely creations of government.
2.1.2009 5:09pm
Sarcastro (www):
Yep, slavery was an entirely political institution.

And there is no difference between federal and state government!
2.1.2009 5:18pm
MarkField (mail):
DMN, it's apparent that you aren't very aware of the history of slavery in this country. The first slave code was passed in VA in 1660 or so, roughly 40 years after slaves were first brought there. Somehow, slavery managed to be viable for that whole time without a single law.

Laws in the 1700s were minimal. Most social regulation was accomplished by local citizens acting in concert. They neither needed nor used the power of the state. They used their own cooperation to keep people in slavery (aided by the ignorance of the imported blacks and the wilderness which surrounded them and discouraged flight).

Now, it is true that slavery became much more regulated by government in the 19th C. That's partly why it became necessary for the federal government to step in and abolish it. And yes, it was government which abolished it -- the 13th A can't be described any other way, and the use of an army -- one maintained in part by a draft, of all things -- is a determinative of government.

As for segregation, it was the absence of law as much as its presence which perpetuated it. True, Southern states did enact some segregation laws. But these didn't define the full extent of segregation and they weren't used to enforce it. What enforced segregation was the private violence which the state failed to prevent.
2.1.2009 5:21pm
Nick056:
Eliot123,

When I say it's near the battle site, I mean when you walk through the gates of the main entrance and tour the field, there will be a Super Wal Mart, and everything that goes with it, only one quarter mile from the main entrance.

Other such box stores may follow the Wal Mart. The highway may need expansion to cover traffic demand -- this is a highway on which there was action during the battle. As you might expect, a lot of the ground affected by this will be, properly speaking, battlefield, just not part of a military park. This means that you don't tour most of the site without a commercial strip looming at the edges and changing the lay of the land.

I'm not saying big government ought to take over that land because no one can afford to buy it. But I don't need to go that far to illustrate that the private sector can have zero or insufficient incentive to undertake some projects, or privilege some resource, that is of national and historic value. Thinking that government action in these matters, whether it's municipal or federal with DoI, is always worse than inaction, is an error. Remember: it's not just that 300 million Americans didn't care about it. It's that insufficient number of them saw the profit in preserving it.
2.1.2009 5:33pm
Elliot123 (mail):
A quarter mile away? So what?

But, you are right that Walmart is not in the business of preserving buffer zones for historic sites, nor do I want them to. The historic site was established and Walmart respects its boundaries like everyone else does. If someone thinks an area should be treated like a park, then get the legislation to do it, or go out and get the contributions to buy it. Otherwise, all we have is an interest group that couldn't interest the public in its interest.
2.1.2009 6:02pm
trad and anon:
As for segregation, it was the absence of law as much as its presence which perpetuated it. True, Southern states did enact some segregation laws. But these didn't define the full extent of segregation and they weren't used to enforce it. What enforced segregation was the private violence which the state failed to prevent.
Indeed. And even when prosecutors did try to bring actions against whites who killed blacks, they lacked the power to obtain convictions. That's why apartheid-era Southern juries are always the first argument made by opponents of jury nullification.
2.1.2009 7:05pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
As for segregation, it was the absence of law as much as its presence which perpetuated it. True, Southern states did enact some segregation laws. But these didn't define the full extent of segregation and they weren't used to enforce it. What enforced segregation was the private violence which the state failed to prevent.
Well, why didn't southern blacks defend themselves from that violence? Oh yeah... because the state disarmed them. The entire purpose of gun control throughout American history has been to disarm blacks.
2.1.2009 7:07pm
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
"Oh yeah... because the state disarmed them."

Sorry, David, but I'm pretty sure they were disarmed long before they got to the States. Once there, society made sure they stayed that way. The state may have helped, but it was hardly a necessary condition for slavery.
2.1.2009 7:11pm
Sarcastro (www):
There's no help like self help!

If only America had gotten it's race war done early, we'd be much better off today.

Stupid gun laws! Our wiley forefathers even had them before blacks were considered people. Such prescient evil racism!
2.1.2009 7:14pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
DMN, it's apparent that you aren't very aware of the history of slavery in this country. The first slave code was passed in VA in 1660 or so, roughly 40 years after slaves were first brought there. Somehow, slavery managed to be viable for that whole time without a single law.
Really? Then why did they feel the need to pass such laws, Mark? Legislatures often pass stupid, unnecessary, or counterproductive laws, but they rarely pass such laws when nobody wants them. Obviously, slaveholders felt such laws were required to support the peculiar institution.

Before the mid 17th century, there were only a few hundred blacks in all of Virginia; you might be able to sustain slavery with that small a slave population, just as there are handfuls of sex slaves in the U.S. now, relying on private violence. But you can't maintain it on a wide scale without government support.
2.1.2009 7:17pm
MarkField (mail):

Really? Then why did they feel the need to pass such laws, Mark? Legislatures often pass stupid, unnecessary, or counterproductive laws, but they rarely pass such laws when nobody wants them.


You mean 40 years isn't enough for a counter-example?

Amazingly enough, VA passed its first slave law because a slave sued for her (!) freedom. Elizabeth Key was a mulatto, born of a slave mother and a white father. She argued that she was free by right of her father and the county court freed her. The House of Burgesses then passed a law stating that slave status passed through the mother.

Look, nobody is denying that some laws were passed to support slavery and segregation both. But it's fatuous -- and I use that word deliberately -- to claim that "only" government kept slavery/segregation in operation. That's just not true; it was a social system entirely organized around the inferior status of blacks which maintained both systems of social control.

In this sense, it was no different than the New England social control exercised by villages and local churches. They didn't need laws because they had neighbors who would enforce codes of behavior. The same was true in the South, just for different ends.
2.1.2009 8:16pm
Tritium (mail):
Just as the founding fathers believed it was wrong to meddle in other governments affairs, it thought the same was important at home. They wanted an end to slavery, but if the United States were to stand for Liberty, that included the liberty of the state as well as the people. Something we've lost over the last century.

Knowing that there were economic concerns for the Agricultural markets, compensation was offered to offset the costs incurred in obtaining the slaves. Slave's who grew up on many of the farms knew of no other life, so didn't consider their place amongst men to be forced, but a condition of the times.

But what is slavery? A slave is a person who relies on another for his/her basic necessities. A person who owns land that farms &hunts for his own necessities is not a slave. A person who is required to labor for others in order to supply himself with the day to day necessities is considered a slave. Though he may leave employment whenever he wishes, he would also be without a means to support himself.

The Federal Government added to this condition with the Income Tax, that they put in place just before the depression. (Coincidence?) Though at the time, the taxing scheme was a little more fair. The higher cost of living ($5000) for the tax year was exempt from taxation. Today, people that default on their loans wouldn't be required to pay a tax if it costs that much to live. That was when interest rates were locked in. The more the banks profitted... the more they would pay in taxes because they contributed to the person's cost of living expenses being so high and for so long. Since then, taxes have turned Ugly, and are more important to pay than your living expenses. Go figure.

Lincoln said... Slavery and Capitalism cannot co-exist. Considering that we've thrown the principles of capitalism out the window.. this must be slavery.
2.2.2009 4:43am
David Warner:
MarkField,

"But it's fatuous -- and I use that word deliberately -- to claim that "only" government kept slavery/segregation in operation. That's just not true; it was a social system entirely organized around the inferior status of blacks which maintained both systems of social control."

Exactly, which is why it's just as fatuous to imagine that government took the lead in overturning that system. MLK wasn't a fed. Brown was great, but Justice Marshall didn't have much luck enforcing it until the Freedom Riders and friends went to work.

Sarcastro,

You can kiss King John's ass all you like, just don't go thinking that somehow makes you some kind of Robin Hood.

Welker,

Take a look some time where each cent of that dollar you want to requisition from dog grooming and other disapproved activities actually goes when sent the way of the state. No fair talking ideal over real - you're part of the reality-based community, remember?

Nice circular firing squad we've got here.
2.2.2009 7:10am
pluribus:
David M. Nieporent:

To hear you people talk, slavery suddenly appeared one day, and then one day beneficent government came in, like Moses sent by God, to end it. How do you think millions of people were kept in bondage by a relative handful of slave owners? What do you think kept slaves from defending themselves, hell from just walking away?

You are correct in pointing out that the government was deeply involved in the protection of slavery--also in the protection of segregation. I didn't intend to suggest otherwise by reciting acts the government took in later years to ameliorate the condition of blacks. I believe Mark Field conceded the same point when he wrote: "Look, nobody is denyting that some laws were passed to support slavery and segregation both." I would disagree with Mark by amending his statement to read "a lot of laws were passed to support slavery and segregation both." In fact, the slave codes of the slaveholding states were pervasive in their support of slavery and their suppression of blacks. Reviewing the laws of mid-19th century Virginia, as I had occasion to do recently, was quite revealing. But the argument that developed here was somewhat different. Does government action always harm black people (or in fact any group of people)? My point is no, it sometimes is very harmful and sometimes very beneficial, depending on the nature of the action. If the government intends to harm people (as it did during the days of slavery and segregation) it can do so most effectively. If it intends to help people, it can be effective in doing that--again depending on the nature of the action.

BTW, you are a reasonable, well-informed, and generally civil participant in these discussions. I'd be grateful if you wouldn't include me in "you people" when you make points. I try to be an independent thinker (not one of "you people") and hope I come across that way (even when I am wrong, which of course is often).
2.2.2009 9:26am
Andy Freeman (mail):
> Neither freedom of speech, nor freedom of religion, nor gun rights, or any other basic right, were negatively impacted by the creation of such huge government programs as Medicare and AFDC.

Try "petitioning govt" to not put a public housing project in your neighborhood and see how much your freedom of speech is impacted.
2.2.2009 10:23am
Andy Freeman (mail):
> John Thain spent $1.2 million of corporate money redecorating his office while his company's profits were plummeting and it was accepting government subsidies.

It's hard to see how this is an argument for govt subsidies.

> Enron's Jeff Skilling recklessly spent corporate money on personal luxuries and lavish parties as his company hurtled toward bankruptcy--taking with it thousands of individuals and families, destroying their life savings, and ruining their retirements.

But, curiously enough, every one of those folks was a volunteer. They signed up with Enron/Skilling hoping to make a killing. They'd have kept that money if things had worked out, so why is it objectionable for them to take the loss when it didn't?

Note that I didn't sign up with Enron, so I wasn't eligible for the potential gain and I didn't take the loss.

That's the difference between Enron Follies and govt follies. No one with guns shows up to force me to "invest" in corporate America, either in part or as a whole. I can pick and choose, and even stay on the sidelines.

Govt doesn't work that way. It shows up with guns and says that it means well.
2.2.2009 10:28am
MarkField (mail):

Exactly, which is why it's just as fatuous to imagine that government took the lead in overturning that system. MLK wasn't a fed. Brown was great, but Justice Marshall didn't have much luck enforcing it until the Freedom Riders and friends went to work.


Much as I admire King, the Freedom Riders, and many others, it was the Civil Rights Act which really broke the back of segregation.

Just to give one small example, when the Freedom Rides began, discrimination on interstate buses had already been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948. That, obviously, failed to prevent the horrific violence faced by the Freedom Riders, just as laws against murder failed to prevent, say, the Birmingham church bombing. That's because the particular violence in those cases was part of a larger system of violence which the legal system in the South failed to punish or even deter. That violence continued after the Freedom Rides in Oxford, in Philadelphia, in Birmingham, and elsewhere. Not until the North took over via the Civil Rights Act did the violence taper out and create the opportunity for equality to begin. Note that I didn't say "exist", just "begin".


I would disagree with Mark by amending his statement to read "a lot of laws were passed to support slavery and segregation both." In fact, the slave codes of the slaveholding states were pervasive in their support of slavery and their suppression of blacks.


By the 19th C this is clearly true. However, the slave codes developed over a long time (from 1662-1865). They didn't begin as the extensive system of regulation which they eventually became in the 1800s. Prior to 1800, the actual laws controlling slaves were less important than the developed social structure. Not that the laws weren't important; they were. But it's important to keep in mind that non-governmental force played a very significant role in perpetuating slavery.

There are, btw, a number of books on the development of slave law which I'd be happy to recommend if anyone's interested.
2.2.2009 11:19am
pluribus:

There are, btw, a number of books on the development of slave law which I'd be happy to recommend if anyone's interested.

I am interested, though not sure how much time I can devote to them.
2.2.2009 12:40pm
David Warner:
MarkField,

"Much as I admire King, the Freedom Riders, and many others, it was the Civil Rights Act which really broke the back of segregation."

And you think LBJ ever did anything that wasn't in the direction the wind was already blowing? It was the culture that provided the lungs. Thankfully, we enjoy a system of governance that more or less will eventually bow to that wind, but that system is not itself the bellows.

Government, media, and the academy are each (literally) reactionary institutions. It was the tragedy (comedy?) of the 20th Century that so many Progressives sought to emply them otherwise.
2.2.2009 1:09pm
MarkField (mail):

And you think LBJ ever did anything that wasn't in the direction the wind was already blowing? It was the culture that provided the lungs. Thankfully, we enjoy a system of governance that more or less will eventually bow to that wind, but that system is not itself the bellows.


I do credit MLK and others for creating the political conditions. But LBJ had a HUGE fight on his hands to get that bill through the Senate, and I think he deserves credit for that. Also, I wasn't so much referring to him as to the effects of that bill (and the VRA).
2.2.2009 1:48pm
MarkField (mail):

I am interested, though not sure how much time I can devote to them.


The most complete coverage is probably Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860, by Thomas Morris. I'll warn you that I found it a bit dry.
2.2.2009 1:52pm
David Warner:
MarkField,

"But LBJ had a HUGE fight on his hands to get that bill through the Senate, and I think he deserves credit for that. Also, I wasn't so much referring to him as to the effects of that bill (and the VRA)."

I'd still contend that the huger fight would have been holding it back at that point, as it was the culmination of a social movement going back at least to Wilberforce and the Abolitionists, which the 1964 legislation merely (well, it was more than merely, I'll grant you that) codified. Perhaps a lesser man than LBJ would have tried to hide his head in the sand, but LBJ knew he had little choice at that point, and he recognized that his short term pain would yield great long term gain, both for his party/ideology and his country.

The idea that government can be the vanguard of social change does save modern-day evangelists the messy business of actually evangelizing (which involves the hard work of interaction with the hoi polloi and changing hearts and minds one at a time), but it has the unfortunate feature of thereby not being particularly effective.
2.2.2009 3:54pm
MarkField (mail):

The idea that government can be the vanguard of social change does save modern-day evangelists the messy business of actually evangelizing (which involves the hard work of interaction with the hoi polloi and changing hearts and minds one at a time), but it has the unfortunate feature of thereby not being particularly effective.


I don't think the government is ever "the vanguard" of social change. Nor was it wrt the CRA. It takes a great deal of effort to accomplish social change by generating a political majority (especially one broad enough to overcome a filibuster in the Senate). But I still give credit to those in government who do the work to make it happen.

Again, though, my initial point had more to do with the impact of the CRA -- government intervention if ever there was -- than with how it came to pass.
2.2.2009 4:12pm
David Warner:
MarkField,

"Again, though, my initial point had more to do with the impact of the CRA -- government intervention if ever there was -- than with how it came to pass."

Intervention is not the same as "big" government. It didn't take the over $50 trillion the government has spent since its passage to enforce the CRA, nor was the original CRA phrased in a way that in any sense violated the liberal ideals of limited government upon which this nation is constituted. It has, of course, been construed since in ways that go far afield of those ideals, but its hardly exhibit 1A for big government.

For that see either forced busing (big coercion) or the military budget/entitlements (big budget), both of which, I'll hope you will agree, were/are ultimately self-defeating.
2.2.2009 6:14pm
David Warner:
"to accomplish social change by generating a political majority"

LBJ's political majority was short-leved, as he himself foresaw, but his cultural majority, or rather MLK's cultural majority which carried LBJ along, has been long-lived indeed (we have yet to see its end) and during its lifetime has done the heavy social change lifting.

Which is my point - if you want change, work on the culture, and the political will follow. Even if you get the laws right, if the culture's wrong, people will just ignore/subvert them; the programs right, they'll be corrupted; the leaders right, they'll be pilloried, or, worse, ignored.
2.2.2009 6:32pm
MarkField (mail):

Intervention is not the same as "big" government.


Agreed. But libertarians of the time and associated politicians such as Goldwater opposed the CRA because it was intrusive, not because it was expensive. In that latter sense, I suppose it was an example of "big" government.


LBJ's political majority was short-leved, as he himself foresaw, but his cultural majority, or rather MLK's cultural majority which carried LBJ along, has been long-lived indeed (we have yet to see its end) and during its lifetime has done the heavy social change lifting.


Agreed. This is one of the things I, as a liberal, could use to sustain myself in the dark times of the last 28 years.


Which is my point - if you want change, work on the culture, and the political will follow. Even if you get the laws right, if the culture's wrong, people will just ignore/subvert them; the programs right, they'll be corrupted; the leaders right, they'll be pilloried, or, worse, ignored.


I certainly agree about the importance of culture, but I think it's a little more synergistic than that. Getting the laws right was considered pretty important by both Aristotle and Madison. I'll happily follow in their train, even as I recognize that in a democracy culture change is, thankfully, important in just the way you say.
2.2.2009 7:14pm
MarkField (mail):
Oops. "Latter" should have read "former" (i.e., referring to "intrusive").
2.2.2009 7:15pm
David Warner:
Both Aristotle and Madison enjoyed the benefit of living at the pinnacle of a cultural swell, the former the Alexandrian, the latter the Anglo-French Enlighenment, so certainly when one has the wind at one's back, its important to set the sail as full as possible to gain the maximum speed, and to use the best charts to make sure one is speeding in a desired direction.

In a lull, the best laws lie fallow. Seems pretty lullish around here presently to me. West from here, however...
2.2.2009 7:34pm
pluribus:
MarkField (mail):

The most complete coverage is probably Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860, by Thomas Morris. I'll warn you that I found it a bit dry.

I thought I had thanked you for this, but apparently not. So thanks, I hope to get to it, though I have a pretty big list of reading to get through first.
2.3.2009 8:15am
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
The main way the 1964 Civil Rights Act operated to improve the situation was to enable people like my real estate agent mother to break down racial barriers, in her case in the selling of real estate to minorities in white neighborhoods. It was something she was doing anyway and would have done without the statute, but it provided her with an answer to criticism from the neighbors, that "It's the law!" Statutes can play an important role in influencing social behavior even if they are not actively enforced by government agents. For at least my mother's generation and mine, statutes had a moral force that has largely been dissipated today. As a moral force it is important not to have too many statutes trying to do too much too fast, or without the support of good people who are prepared to use them that way.

The dissipation began with Prohibition and was sustained with speeding laws. People can respect a small body of good laws but lose respect for all laws when law is overused.

I supported the CRA in 1964 for that reason, even though I recognized the Public Accommodations provisions were unconstitutional, and would not have convicted anyone under them had I sat on a jury.
2.3.2009 1:11pm

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