Good government is sort of like unicorns and fairies. We all know what it’s supposed to look like, we just have never seen any.
That said, though government is something that can go wrong very easily, due to the normal pressures of the human makeup (and even their rouge) there are degrees on how bad a government can get.
Arguably, the founders tried to create good government by surrounding it with internal pressures designed to keep it small. What they counted without was semantic wizards capable of turning “interstate commerce” into laws over everything including what type of food you can grow and how much and what kind of cars you can drive. They certainly didn’t count on the power to tax meaning that you’d have to submit your possible treatment to a panel of bureaucrats. Or perhaps they knew it, and they thought if they could establish a government that worked for just a little while…
Most government is mildly bad – would that it were indifferent, but that would require the people who get into administration jobs to be sort of like me and believe that telling people what to do is too much work and they’ll figure it out, anyway. Most people who do that are, in fact, the type of person who thrives on power and telling you what to do. This is why in our modern fables, greed is the worst sin, but love of power isn’t even mentioned, even though most of the time wealth is just a means to power.
What this means is that most governments tend to wish to acquire (and mostly succeed) the most power possible over the most people possible.
Right now you’re squinting at it and thinking of a prison state, with people strictly regulated, with police taking you in for anything even mildly bad, with uniforms and goose stepping and you’re thinking “We’re rid of that at least.”
But you forget that the State has two means of force: one is force as we understand it, the blunt trauma of (increasingly militarized) police, of guards, of physical violence; the other is the power of the purse.
Once a government has the right to seize someone’s income (were you under the impression taxes were something else?) and redistribute it, or even the power to regulate contracts between individuals to where it can say they can happen or can’t, and if they happen it has to be on these terms, and your plant must be built this way, and you can or cannot use this fuel: once that happens, the government has power over you, even if you never see a soldier or policeman. They can step in and stop you making a living by declaring your backyard a wetland, or by decreeing that the child’s toy that has made you rich is “dangerous” and can no longer be manufactured.
Worse, they can make it so the only rational choice is for you to take “government services” which means most people will then fight to keep those services, because they can’t imagine surviving without them.
One of the things people tended to yell at me about was “How come you don’t like government but send your kids to public school?”
I was talking to my publisher (at Baen) Toni Weisskopf at Liberty con and after three pieces of business (one of them was Basset’s antho, and yes, I will post an announcement on that by this weekend. Sorry. I’m still getting over the con crud and it seems to be mutating instead of getting better) we started talking about the “interesting times” we live in. It started with stuff like how it seems to us all of our colleagues have taken a running jump off their rocker and the insanity is so universal that we sit and stare and go “surely, the money is coming in, I’m doing well, it can’t be that my model is wrong. But then why is everyone else doing this other thing and screaming?”
Of course, us being us and insanity being mentioned, we had to talk government. Part of it came down to the type of thing like sending your kids to public school.
See, I would gladly have continued teaching the younger boy – at least – at home, until I could put him in his dual college/high school program, where he was at last at least semi-happy. BUT teaching him cost me eleven thousand a year and that was without hiring a math tutor, which I’d need to do if I’d kept him at home, because he outstripped my math when he left Algebra II. (Yes, I took pre-calc in 9th grade, but even the notations are different here/now.) (I’m not, by the way, saying these are the normal costs of homeschooling, but they were the normal costs for a child who “ate me out of home and curriculum.”)
Of course “it’s for your kid. Why wouldn’t you make a sacrifice” etc. Yes, indeed. The problem is that we COULD’NT. We couldn’t afford that 11k and pay our mortgage, and that was with me delivering six books (half of them were mystery, which is to say 5k books) that year.
How come? Are we driving gold plated cars? While goldplating would be funny on my 20 year old SUV and Dan’s 35 year old mustang, no.
Periodically we decide we need to reduce our expenses and we sit down… Other than the house – which in retrospect was a bad idea to buy, particularly since we did it for the schools, but which even now is well below what we qualify for (though that doesn’t count maintenance, natch) – our most onerous expense is… taxes.
That year that I could barely afford 11k to teach my kid, I paid 14k in taxes from my own income. (And before you think I must have made a lot – I made around 28k. Of course, it goes on top of Dan’s income, but Dan’s income is already depleted by taxes. There’s also, of course, self-employment stuff, also known as “paying for the privilege of not having job security”.)
At that point Toni said, “Yeah, you know how progressives always say ‘you’re against big government but you take disability, or social security, or—’? That is because the government forces immoral choices on people.”
I’ve been thinking about that. It is immoral, of course, to take from other people for your own good. I mean, if you do it you’re called a thief and put in jail, right? Why is it legal for the government to do things you can’t? And why would it be moral for you to take money from others, if you use government? (Is it armed robbery if you use the army, instead of a snub nosed Saturday Night Special?)
Does the government force you to take money? Does the government force you to take advantage of its regulations? Well, of course not, but the incentives are very strongly towards making you take the immoral choice.
It uses your best instincts: you’re supposed to look after yourself and yours, right? So, what kind of parent, what kind of person would you if you turned down that which made you or others that depend on you better off? What kind of person would you be if you lost your house instead of taking unemployment? And, at the same time, by taking from you the means to provide for yourself – through taxes, social security excise, unemployment insurance, the myriad bites out of your paycheck – the government makes that choice inevitable.
A system designed to seize and redistribute money is going to make the individual, rational actor take advantage of it, no matter what the person really wants to do.
This is why I don’t judge conservatives who are on disability or unemployment or supplemental income. What their political choice means is that they see that government is buying their soul piecemeal and binding them up with velvet shackles, and they’re trying to change the system so that others (many of these people are now older or infirm and there’s no hope for them) won’t fall into that trap.
Glenn Reynolds is fond of saying “They’ll turn us into beggars because beggars are easy to please.”
I wish it were only that. But as regulations on our health, on whom we’re allowed to hire, on what use we can make of our own property multiply, I think what the government is actually trying to do is turn us into children. Adult children, in our parents’ basement, kept away from real choices and real freedom, and supposed to be grateful they let us live here.
This is something I worry about with my own kids. We’re trying to do college on the cheap and either without debt or with as little debt as possible (without debt depends on my writing doing well. There are two of them, after all.) This means the kids are living at home. They’re generally good kids, and they have chores and stuff. But we feel guilty, because it’s not the same thing as their living on their own.
I remember with vivid tones the terror I felt the first time Dan and I came up short while on our own. I’d been living semi-on-my-own for a few years: I lived in my parents’ house, but I kept independent finances. HOWEVER it was not the same. When I had an extended period of unemployment, I had to walk from the train to college (an hour on foot at a good clip) and I couldn’t buy books or food while I was out. But I could raid mom’s fridge, my bed was still there, and no one was going to turn the lights off. There is an amount of growing up that doesn’t happen until you come face to face with that “if you don’t work, you die.” (Or at least you’ll go without light, water or a roof.) That is when you learn to make decisions like “We can’t go out to eat tonight, much as we want to, because that’s half our grocery money for the week.” Or “I’ll wait for that book from the library.”
But our present government turns us into that sort of adult children, living in their parents’ house. “Never mind having catastrophic health insurance; it will be there when you get very ill. Meanwhile give us all your money, we need to buy candy for your siblings, because they’re crying.”
The government as constituted, what some have called The Blue Model turns our finances public and private into a tragedy of the commons. That is – for those who never heard of it – they make all our wealth whether public or private a public resource, which you must use or someone else will.
As we continued our discussions in email Toni told me: If you undermine the institutions that foster virtue, do not be surprised when the people do not act virtuously.
I don’t know what she means by virtue. I don’t think she means religious – it’s possible she does, but I don’t think so, since her religion is almost as complicated as mine – I think she means the civic bourgeois virtues: pay your own way, work to support yourself, look after your own, do the right thing.
Our government not only undermines them, in many cases it penalizes them. It’s bad enough when people like us, who pay the mortgage we agreed to pay, who work even when we don’t feel like it, who raise our kids to be productive are forced to subsidize the lifestyle of people who do none of those things. Worse, we’re attacked and belittled – you didn’t build that! – while the people receiving are considered saintly and victims, because they “are in need,” and never ask how they came to be in need. And successful, productive companies subsidize corporate welfare for pipe dreams that will never pay off (Solyndra!)
The essence of a middle class life has become things, and the government seems incapable of believing that things do not make the lifestyle and the very virtues they undermine with redistribution and handouts are the ones that would make the “victims” free. Or perhaps they know it and it’s intentional, of course.
But worse than that, there is the power it gives government to alter political discourse. Take the Tea Parties and the IRS. I keep getting people who say “why did the tea parties apply for tax exempt status? If they’re anti-government, why apply to government for goods?”
Note that most – if not all, I don’t know – tea parties didn’t apply for TAX DEDUCTIBLE status (that was what was delayed for a couple – yes, only a couple – of progressive groups) which is the ability to have people deduct their contributions to you as charitable. No, all that the tea parties wanted was for the person collecting the money for tea-party use not to be taxed on it as personal income. Why did they want that? Because otherwise it becomes a serious pain in the neck. Take it from me. I’ve never run anything as large as a tea-party, even a local one, but I dealt with finances for cons and local groups (long ago, before the kids) and if that money is falling into a bank account you control, it’s YOUR money, and you have to declare it.
So, to create a group that fights back the encroachment of government, you have to apply for tax exempt status, which means you give government the chance to curtail your activities.
Not only is government behaving like it’s the parent and we live in its basement – it’s an abusive parent who yells at us for not doing the dishes and makes us late for an interview, which means we can’t get a job and move out.
More than that, the government and the er… media industrial complex promote the idea that if you try to work for yourself and better yourself you are somehow doing something wrong: “You didn’t build that” and “We belong to government” and the whole thing about the role of government being to help the less fortunate (which in government parlance – no, not in reality – is often those who are UNWILLING to help themselves.) If to be considered virtuous and worthy you have to stop exercising the bourgeois virtues that made this country great – restraint, foresight, self-care – and if those virtues are ridiculed, why would you even try to live a “decent, bourgeois” life? (And note how bourgeois has become an insult, though what it really means is “not born to power and striving for self-sufficiency and decency.”)
As I was pondering this article, I came across this article from Powerline where Raoul Castro, younger member of the most notoriously and murderously rapacious family in Cuba, berates the Cubans for their lack of civic morality. He yells about children born out of wedlock, and graffiti and public urination.
Well, Raoul, if your government extols – at least from the lips out – the virtues of those who have nothing; if you make business a sin and profit a bad thing; if you make everything bad that happens in the isle, and the fact that your economy has been below life support for years someone else’s fault: mostly the US embargo’s and “imperialists” – why would you expect your subjects to take action to better themselves? Wouldn’t that make them “imperialists” and “greedy?” While if they fail, it’s someone else’s fault. (It might also not have been a good idea to become the USSR’s lap dog, provider of mercenaries and tit-sucker. Just saying. The USSR was not known as a bastion of morality for about the same reason you’re not.)
My father used to tell me that a weak leader makes a strong country weak. Perhaps. I’ll add that an immoral government makes a moral country immoral.
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
This is known as “bad luck.”- Robert A. Heinlein
And that bad luck is aided and abetted if government gives you incentive for all the wrong choices. That’s a bad government. It might even be evil.
So, what is good government? I’ve never seen it in my life, since, since long before the sixties (when I was born) government has seized on charity as a good way to get more power to itself “for the children” and “for the poor” and thereby has been destroying civic virtue and that which allows civilization to exist.
But if I had to make a guess, good government would be something like this: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Strangely this same document foresees (talks about – I mean they were facing one) governments that have strayed from this purpose, and advises a remedy: That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
It is not one to be undertaken lightly, and I’d rather we undermine and under-build government so when it collapses we’re ready for it. It’s possible that technology and the complete mess government has become make undermining and underbuilding a reasonable choice. But to manage that, we must remember what is our natural disposition and inclination and what are the immoral choices forced on us by government. We might conform to those choices while they’re there, since it’s our duty to stay alive and look after ourselves and ours by any means possible. But we should remember at all times this is not the government’s house. This is our house. We’re not children. We did build that. We can come out of the basement and into the light anytime we choose to. And it is our duty to try.