Friday, July 24, 2009

Too big II: Electric Boogaloo

Radley Balko responds to my response:

...and another unserious one.
Unserious would be me making fun of your name. You'll notice I didn't do that.

First, I’m not part of “The Right.”
And yet, you share the Right's obsession with Big Government.

Second, I do believe in a basic set of night watchman and public goods responsibilities to be legitimate functions of government.
But only those functions are legitimate. Why only those functions? Is there a libertarian Grand Unified Theory of Legitimate Functions of Government? Am I correct in assuming that government becomes bad when it steps outside of those specific functions?

At any rate, your original post didn't deal with the question of which functions of government were legitimate -- it dealt, very simply, with how big and expensive government was. Which leads us to the point I was making: if you think that an arbitrarily large government is too large, that means that small government is better than big government, which means that less government is better than more government, which means that government is bad.

Third, I didn’t argue that all government is inherently bad.
But that's the fundamental assumption underlying libertarianism. See above.

I asked for liberals to define an upper limit on how much government is too much, using some fairly common metrics. Presumably, most leftists want more government than we have now. And presumably, most leftists would stop well short of advocating a totalitarian or Soviet-style communist state. I’m asking them to give a rough estimate of where they’d place their boundaries.
Which brings us to the core of my response: you can't use numbers to arbitrarily define how much government is too much. You state that some functions of government are legitimate and some are not, but then you ask liberals to define "too much government" in terms of numbers rather than functions.

So that, in short, is my response: you're asking the wrong question. The question you should be asking liberals is "What functions of government do you define as illegitimate?"

Finally, what exactly does “all the things people want to pay for” mean? Anything anyone wants at any time, government should pay for? Anything a majority of voters want? Anything a majority of the Congress wants?
Functionally, it means anything a majority of Congress plus the president wants, or else anything a two-thirds supermajority of Congress wants. Subject to a later determination of constitutionality by a majority of the Supreme Court.

If a majority of Congress or a majority of voters decided tomorrow that the federal government should buy everyone in the country a free ice cream cone each Tuesday, would that be an appropriate reason to raise taxes?
Sure. The function of government is to allocate scarce resources. If, to use your deliberately silly example, the elected representatives of the people decide that our precious national ice cream reserves ought to be allocated via weekly free ice cream cones, then taxes are the logical way to to fund that allocation (unless you're a Republican, in which case borrowing money from Red China is the logical way to fund it).


Anonymous said...

You suggest that Balko is part of The Right because he shares "the Right's obsession with Big Government." Was Henry David Thoreau arguing from the right when he wrote in Civil Disobedience, "that goverment is best which governs least"? Your suggestion that only the Right takes seriously the principle of limited government ignores a whole tradition of Leftist opposition to authoritarianism.

Anonymous said...

(unless you're a Republican, in which case borrowing money from Red China is the logical way to fund it).

Interesting--red-baiting is now a respectable trope for leftist bloggers.

Phlinn said...

"if you think that an arbitrarily large government is too large, that means that small government is better than big government, which means that less government is better than more government, which means that government is bad."

This logic is flawed. Consider a government which is in charge of 100% of it's people's lives. If there is even one thing which you consider bad for government to control, then you can say that this size government is too large. This does not mean that it's impossible for any particular small government to be worse than any particular large government. For the sake of simplification, assume life has 5 things government can control, and that conrolling 1-3 is good, 4-5 is bad. A government which actually controls 1-3 would be better than one which only interferes with 4-5. Similarly, if said government controls 4 segments, you can assume at that point that it's controlling at least one thing that it shouldn't be.

Consumatopia said...

The conversation would be more fruitful if Balko & friends would admit that their beef isn't with liberals, but with utilitarians and anyone else who doesn't prejudge government according to a narrow numeric constraint. I'm going to judge the merits of each proposed intervention and support/oppose them accordingly.

Consumatopia said...

Phlinn, the gulf between "size of government" and "in charge of X% of people's lives" is unbridgeable. Regulating sex, drugs, speech, or the press might not have a particularly large effect on the percentage of government, but would effect a huge chunk of our lives.

Johnny Pez said...

An anonymous commenter comments:

You suggest that Balko is part of The Right because he shares "the Right's obsession with Big Government."

No, I suggest that Balko shares his obsession with Big Government with the Right. His obsession blinds him (and everyone he shares it with) to the fact that it isn't a government's percentage of GDP that makes it dangerous, it's the scope of its activities. As Consumatopia notes, a government doesn't have to be all-controlling to be tyrannical.

Syd Webb said...

The idea of 'too much government' is a bit like the idea of 'too much Christianity' or 'too much Fourth of July". It helps if terms are defined.

Happily we can disassemble American government into its component parts.

We can slice it into Federal, state and local government. Or we can slice into executive, legislative and judicial.

Or we can look at specific programs: military, social welfare, education, policing, transport, custodial, health, environmental and the like.

Having defined the issue we can look for areas we can agree are too big or too small - by comparing with best-practice from the civilised world.

Thus we can see that a navy that is more powerful - not just than America's two greatest rivals - than all the world's navies put together, is an example of big government bloat. Whereas a health system that fails to deliver basic care to all citizens is, if not a symptom of too small government, is at least due to misdirected spending.

In Australia there are two Representatives for each Senator. In the USA the ratio is more than 4:1 which is, arguably, an indicator of 'big' government. And is a supreme court of nine really necessary, when seven will avoid ties and still have bench strength?

And so we could go, taking the offices and expenditure of government, line-item at at time, to see if each makes sense, is too much or too inadequate.

However this analytical approach is not used by Radley Balko with his 'metrics'. He takes eight eclectic measures of 'big government'.

Some are downright eccentric. It takes the same size bureaucracy to collect a progressive income tax (with deductions) as a flat income tax (with deductions).

Inflation seems odd, too. "Printing money" is one way to cause inflation but there are other ways, ways that can be exacerbated without a strong government to intervene.

'Unfunded liability of entitlement programs' seems like a peculiarly American concern. In Australia we fund social welfare out of current revenue. Having extra taxes to make provision for the social security entitlement of the next generation would strike us as being a bit, well, big government.

And what's the deal with comparing the US average tax rate with Somalia? It just seems dishonest. In the civilised world we compare our tax rates with our fellows in the OECD. Some useful charts half-way down this page.

- Syd

Johnny Pez said...

Well, Syd, you may think that you've got facts and reason on your side, but since you're a foreigner, you can't hope to understand Real Freedom the way an American would.

How long has Australia had Socialized Medicine? Twenty-five years, right? Well then, you're already so deeply sunk in Stalinism, I mean statism, that you don't even realize that you've become a nation of slaves.

I'm afraid there's no help for you.

Syd Webb said...

Johnny wrote:

I'm afraid there's no help for you.

This may be true but it doesn't prevent well-meaning Americans trying to help us slavish Australians.

Here is Rutgers' Professor Adam Graycar trying to explain New Jersey corruption to us Ignorant Australians:

"Getting things done is perennially complex and convoluted. Nobody seems to know the rules, they are interpreted and enforced haphazardly, and often it is easier to buy your way.

"People often say the US and Australia are culturally similar but the countries are vastly different in government style. The US is much more over-governed than Australia, there are many more points of taxation, and there is virtually no respect for public service.

"Together with high materialistic aspirations, it makes a great breeding ground for those who see public office as a way to self-enrichment."

As they say on teh intertubes, read the whole thing.

- Syd