March 26, 2006

Will The Voter Initiative Change The Status Quo If Our Core Problem Is The Large Size Of Government?

Responding to the editorial mentioned in Marc's posting, I would offer this cautionary view about expectations expressed by Joseph Weaver regarding the Voter Initiative:

We have serious political problems in Rhode Island, due to an oversized government that tramples on nearly all aspects of our lives and taxes us to the extreme. Furthermore, Rhode Island state and local government is dominated by some very powerful special interests.

The Voter Initiative is based on the premise that its approval would allow other interests, who are currently less powerful, to have more influence over governmental processes and thereby weaken today's well-entrenched special interests.

I think this is a naive view of the world.

Should the Voter Initiative pass, special interests will simply adjust and change their modus operandi. They will likely be no less powerful. Rather, they will simply direct their efforts in other ways, just like Guy Dufault did in the recent constitutional convention vote. Or by organizing voters who are a part of their public sector activities, like union workers.

The core issue is that government plays too large a role in our state's economy. As was written here,

Government has become a huge business, which means there is a lot of money for various interest groups - of all political persuasions - to grab, some for legitimate reasons and much in the form of pork. Money flows into politics to buy influence because so much is at stake financially. While no one wants to talk about it openly, the flow of large sums of money into politics is yet another unfortunate price we pay for allowing government to become such a pervasive part of our lives. If we truly had limited government, the pressure to buy influence would be much reduced. It is nothing but foolish ignorance to seek limits on the flow of money without first reducing the structural incentives that currently give people an economic reason to buy influence.

Unfortunately, the Voter Initiative does not change the structural incentives and, therefore, assist in returning us to the Founders' principle of limited government.

An additional perspective on this issue has recently been written about in a book I read over Spring Break entitled The New New Left: How American Politics Works Today by Steven Malanga. The book was reviewed in the Claremont Review of Books, where the reviewer had these comments:

...Steven Malanga's The New New Left...premise is that competitive markets, low taxes, and entrepreneurial spirit are far better at lifting people out of poverty than are government programs, however well intentioned. ..

...For Malanga, however, power-hungry union leaders are in cahoots with cynical politicians, and brave correspondents must uncover the truth to protect taxpayers and business entrepreneurs. "Politics in America today," he holds, is a "faceoff" between taxpayers and "tax eaters." He warns that "the vast expansion of the public sector is finally reaching a tipping point, giving tax eaters the upper hand, especially in America's cities."

The most prominent element of the "tax eater" coalition—the one to which Malanga devotes most attention—is the government-employee union. Nearly as important but often overlooked by journalists and political scientists are the "social services groups created by the War on Poverty" with their ever-growing number of "quasi-public workers." He notes that health care jobs, for instance, have grown from less than 4% of the work force in 1965 to almost 10% today. Most of the funding comes from Medicare, Medicaid, and highly regulated insurance plans.

Malanga argues that the venal motives of public-employee union and social service group leaders are cleverly disguised by another member of the "new new left," political activists with cushy university jobs. He may exaggerate the influence of those individuals (one hesitates to call them academics) working in "labor studies" programs in public universities, yet the stories he tells show how deeply some institutions of higher learning have sunk into the swamp of unabashed partisanship.

At a time when we are bombarded with newspaper articles and expert analysis about the overwhelming power of conservatives, businessmen, and the Religious Right, it is useful to be reminded that the welfare state's supporters continue to wield substantial political clout. This helps explain why a quarter of a century after the Reagan Revolution, and a decade since the Gingrich Revolution, the public sector is bigger than ever. Although many beneficiaries of government programs are not organized, those who provide government services are. Not only do they vote, but they can help mobilize all those beneficiaries who would be threatened by retrenchment of the welfare state...

More telling is Malanga's point that the new New Left's influence has grown at the state and local level at the same time that it has declined at the national level. An odd but crucial feature of American government over the past 50 years is that the number of federal civilian employees has remained constant despite the enormous expansion of the federal government's role. This is because most federal programs are carried out by state and local employees, whose numbers have grown by leaps and bounds since the 1960s. This peculiarity of our government bureaucracy reduces the power of public-employee unions at the national level, but magnifies it at the state and local level.

Malanga warns that the "tax eaters" will demand more and more of the golden goose known as the taxpayer...

The Voter Initiative does not directly address the issues raised by Malanga.

My personal belief is that the first priority for change should be a Taxpayers' Bill of Rights (TABOR)-type initiative which seeks to limit the size of government and, by default, limit the power of all special interests.

For more information on TABOR, go here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here (and then type in TABOR).