Thursday, August 13, 2009

What do we want from government, and how do we want government to provide it.

In a previous entry I said the following.
A financial blog I read has this quote from P. J. O'Rourke. "Feeling good about government is like looking on the bright side of any catastrophe. When you quit looking on the bright side, the catastrophe is still there." It's that sort of sentiment that leads to the incompetence we saw in the Bush administration.

Humans are social creatures. We live in groups. We need ways to govern those groups. Pretending that we don't is worse than foolish. I discourages attempts to construct good governmental structures--which is not an oxymoron.

I would go so far as to say that actively promoting this sort of thinking is unpatriotic and harmful to the country. I wouldn't want laws to stop it, but I would certainly criticize people who engage in that sort of rabble rousing.
My respondent said the following.
I agree that we need government, but my view is basically:

* small government is good, big government is bad
* market regulation is good, market interference (interference with the market price mechanism) is bad
* simple taxes (e.g. sales tax or VAT) are good, complex taxes like income tax are bad

The role of government is to provide a stable legal system, a stable monetary system, a sound infrastructure, to defend the country from external threats, and to keep their hands off everything else. In my view they have not done a very good job on any of these. Before I am labeled a right-wing neo-con I should clarify that I define "infrastructure" as including education and basic health care.
I then replied as follows.
I think we are basically in agreement. The problem is that saying one wants small government seems to contradict saying that the government should provide a sound infrastructure and that a sound infrastructure should include a stable legal system, a stable monetary system, appropriate market regulation, education, and basic health care.

Doing a good job of providing that sort of infrastructure is not trivial. Certainly it's not something that one can just toss off by saying that the smaller the government the better. Besides that, it takes a fair amount of money to provide that infrastructure. That money has to come from somewhere. As I like to say, freedom isn't free; that's why we pay taxes.

So rather than saying "small government is good; big government is bad" or "taxes are bad" or even worse, "government is the problem not the solution" why not talk about the things we want government to do, acknowledge that there are quite a few of them, that they cost money, and that the money must come from somewhere, and then focus on the best ways to get them done and the best ways to finance them.

No comments: