December 29, 2010

Beware Too-Efficient Government

Justin Katz

Over on the WPRI site, Ted Nesi is running a series of "Dear Mr. Chafee" essays by "five of the state’s smartest citizens." I'll admit that I'm a bit suspicious of his claim — inasmuch as I'm on the list — but Tom Sgouros, who penned the first in the series is surely among the more intelligent on Rhode Island's far left. Of course, he therefore more clearly enunciates the error in progressive thinking:

... lurking under most of these issues is one big issue: the relationship between the state and the cities and towns. Our governments exist to provide a set of services we all need. The strange thing is how we think that having governments constantly at odds with each other is the most efficient way to deliver those services.

In the minds of Sgouros's ilk, the American experiment in government — democracy, checks and balances, and all that — has either been proven a failure or perhaps should never have been attempted. To Sgouros, "governments exist to provide a set of services." To the founders who signed the Declaration of Independence, "Governments are instituted among Men" to secure "certain unalienable Rights." The founders knew that a government empowered to be efficient was empowered to — and would surely find reason to — oppress.

What's astonishing is that Sgouros cites evidence that ought to speak against centralization for just the opposite, using Central Falls as an example:

...would the mayor have made the bad decisions he made without seeing the state as a separate party able to bail him out ...?

The only way increasing the centralized hand would decrease mayors' inclination to pass bucks upward would be if the leaders of local communities weren't elected by their communities, but appointed by the state. That is, if they were accountable to the state for their positions. The American experiment meant to make government accountable to the people, but in the name of efficiency, Sgouros has already discarded such notions. It shows in his terrible understanding of how democracy is structured to function:

... the forms of cooperation have to become part of the government, since a "system" that depends on the good will of this mayor or that governor isn't a system at all.

I shiver to contemplate what "the forms of cooperation" might be, but I also shiver to think that voters actually believe that elected officials' core motivation should be "good will." Many do, of course, and many of them probably share Sgouros's worldview. After all, he's happy to rely on the good will of state legislators and leaders — perhaps a national technocracy — although that's largely because he trusts his allies to control them.

What voters ought to trust in is the desire of leaders to stay in office and their realization that the people are empowered to remove them. The closer those leaders are to the people who can vote them out of a job, the more effective that mechanism will be. That those higher up the chain, at the state and national levels, have made a practice of bailing leaders out when they've failed as miserably as in Central Falls does not in any way suggest that centralized government will be more accountable.

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To Sgouros, "governments exist to provide a set of services."

Like Justin, I have never thought of the government as a vehicle for the delivery of "services". As "services" may vary in definition, according to your political slant, I think the definitions can be resolved by looking to our founding documents.

I am extremely dubious about any one who can easily refer to "a set of services". This is a phrase that most conservatives would not even think to mouth. I regard such phraseology as a "group marker" of liberals (once again known as "Progressives")

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 29, 2010 2:48 PM

Imagine a government that does not provide "services." Imagine dirt roads full of unregistered vehicles, junks really because without good roads and people to maintain them their would be no incentive to produce quality cars. Imagine the ripple effect from there, mass unemployment, hungry people looking for work, with no money to spend so the supply side goes bankrupt, banks fail, industry collapses and there is no work except maybe in the army. Then we can have riots, and our army poised to quell those riots, and then civil war.

I think I've worked in the inner city too long. I see just how fragile our economy is, and without government interference and a huge influx of cash into the economy on the first of the month just how delicate a balance we straddle between peace and chaos.

I wish it wasn't so. But it is. We are a few paychecks away from a mass increase in crime and violence. The little people are quiet now, placated by tidbits and "services" provided by "the government."

Take that away and it all falls apart.

Posted by: michael at December 29, 2010 4:05 PM

As much as it pains me to say this, I agree with Justin on this one. Its a very misguided thought to assume governments exist to provide services. Governments everywhere and at all times have one archetypal function - managing social competition or conflict. A representative form of government is meant to consider all of our competing interests as equally as possible. Monarchies and dictatorships might be great at providing efficient services, but it obviously comes at the price of equal access for all. Our system seems difficult and slow precisely because it addresses so many (though certainly not all) competing interests. For my part, I would take inefficient public services over inaccessible government any day.

Posted by: Ron at December 29, 2010 4:52 PM


Why would it pain you to agree with me? You should feel liberated!



You're coming at the question from the wrong direction. Sgouros and I are starting from principles: For what purpose is government fundamentally formed for? Sgouros says, "to provide services that we all need"; me and the founders say it's to secure rights. One can go in multiple directions from each principle, and I'll certainly cede that some services (e.g., national security and policing) are clearly within the government's scope and that many others may be, in limited, local contexts. Starting with Sgouros's principle insinuates that any service that gets to the point that "we all need" it must therefore be the purview of government (consider the Internet).

You're working backwards, essentially arguing that government services even to the extent of hand-outs are necessary in order to provide security and, therefore, secure citizens' rights. To some extent, that may be true, but it's evidence of how far we've gone in the wrong direction. Statists have created an underclass of dependents and seek always to expand it until every ounce of responsibility and authority rests in their hands.

In the long run, that will not secure rights, because it will inherently entail their restriction. It will, however, provide services... at last as efficiently as the government is able to do it, which (again, in the long run) will not be very well, because the incentives are all wrong.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 29, 2010 5:15 PM

I'm in total agreement that things went completely wrong. Being healthy and motivated is a gift I do not take lightly. I've seen too much of the other side to have much hope in a nation that thrives without a strong government that provides services that I find completely unnecessary, but the masses do not.

I'm probably off on a rant here, I've been working since Christmas and the need, or probably more accurate, the demand for government, in my isolated world of EMS anyway, is staggering.

And, I just watched "The Road" again.

Posted by: michael at December 29, 2010 5:25 PM

Michael, government does a very poor job of providing any services. Can you imagine what computers would be like if they were made to government-originated and enforced specifications?

Government had nothing to do with the creation of the internal combustion engine, which made possible advances in the quality of life for your "masses" beyond anyone's imagination at the time.

The best-constructed, smoothest-flowing urban highways in the US are the private turnpikes constructed since 1990. The drivers who use them consider them a great bargain compared to the constipated freeway system.

The world is filled with thousands of ways that private, enterprising individuals created solutions to human problems that are far better than any politician, bureaucrat or "expert" could imagine.

You might want to stretch your mind to consider what other social mechanisms could possibly "provide services" besides government, and how they might work, rather than rejecting the concept out of hand.

Posted by: BobN at December 29, 2010 8:25 PM

Ask Sgouros why Rhode Island has such severe economic troubles.

You will get a mix of, "It's very complicated," and, "It's not that bad," i.e. "I don't really know" and denial.

His entire mode of thinking is backwards and unscientific. He starts with the assumption that central planning is the answer and then works backwards to justify that conclusion by testing various premises until he finds some that can be supported through cherry-picked data. The finishing point for his analysis, preordained from the beginning of his assumptions, is that something must be "off" with the central planning. Who can fix it? Why, he can, of course. Given enough time and government resources.

It's the same old self-serving myth that has been perpetuated by academics and quant nerds for decades. Central planning, even in the private sector, is responsibility for a very small portion of humanity's leaps forward. Which is precisely why the idea of government loaning out money to develop green technology is so counterproductive and fundamentally absurd. Technology in particular is virtually always advanced through bottom-up wide-scale experimentation and creative destruction, not government grants. History does leap, not march, forward, contrary to the progressive narrative fallacy.

Posted by: Dan at December 30, 2010 1:17 PM

For those who seem to be arguing that goernment provide services because it has done so, and we are now acclimated to it. I suggest that you consider one of the rules of studying history, if things had not happened as the did, does not mean that they would never have happened at all.

We would have probably separated from Britain without our Revolutionary War. Slavery would probably have ended without our Civil War. We would probably have entered WWII without Pearl Harbor.

The fact that a politician in the past saw an opportunity and seized it by creating an agency to provide a service, does not mean it could not have been done another way.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 30, 2010 9:08 PM

Michael writes:

"Imagine a government that does not provide "services." Imagine dirt roads full of unregistered vehicles"

I think Michael stumbles over the proposition in my previous post. He believes these services were necessary adjuncts of governance.

First, let us accept that there were paved roads (macadam) before there was a Department of Transportation. Paved roads are a "supply" responding to a "demand". It may be a proper function of government, but it has become frozen in the ancient idea of "the King's Highway". I doubt any new ideas were considered, now it is a bit late. Worse, "Highway Funds" have become a means of purchasing "State's Rights". The Federal government can force the states to accede to anything by a threat to withhold "highway funds". The "Interstate Highway System" didn't really get legs until politicians discovered they could buy large tracts of vacant land for peanuts, and then demand a highway exit there. Pull out a 30 year old road map of Florida and notice the number of highways that just end in the middle of no where,then check the land records to see who owns the land. The next time you drive to Boston, it should still be possible to see the abandoned "taking" straight into Boston. This at the point where 95 joins the old 128. It became politically inconvenient, so 15 minutes was added for the trip through Boston. And this after the taxpayers had paid for hte taking. 40 years later, it necessitated the "Big Dig". Marvelous.

Consider downtown Providence, federal Highway Funds were subverted to expose the rivers. Providence residents are probably pleased. I wonder how the taxpayers in Minnesota, who paid for it, would feel.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 30, 2010 9:35 PM

Great posts!

I'm with Justin on this one.

Posted by: Nate0624 at December 31, 2010 12:36 PM
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