Capitalism, Issues, Socialism

When Picking the Correct Size of Government, the Choice Isn’t Anarchy or Greece

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Back in 2011, I shared a video that mocked libertarians by claiming that Somalia was their ideal no-government paradise.

I pointed out, of course, that the argument was silly.Sort of like claiming that North Korea is the left’s version of policy paradise.

But the video was very clever, and I’m more than willing to disseminate anti-libertarian humor if it’s clever and well done.

Some folks on the left, however, confuse satire with serious argument.

Consider the recent New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof. He wants his readers to think that advocates of small government somehow should be saddled with the blame for the dysfunctional nightmare of South Sudan. Seriously.

After hearing Republican presidential candidates denounce big government and burdensome regulation, I’d like to invite them to spend the night here in the midst of the civil war in South Sudan. You hear gunfire, competing with yowls of hyenas, and you don’t curse taxes. Rather, you yearn for a government that might install telephones, hire a 911 operator and dispatch the police. …Ted Cruz…is clamoring for: weaker government, less regulation… In some sense, you find the ultimate extension of all that right here.

Gee, isn’t Kristof clever. If you don’t support a bankrupt entitlement state and inane over-regulation, then you must want chaos and civil war.

Just in case you think I’m taking him out of context to make his argument look foolish, here are more excerpts.

No regulation! No long lines at the D.M.V., because there is no D.M.V. in the conflict areas. In practice, no taxes or gun restrictions. No Obamacare. No minimum wage. No welfare state to breed dependency. …In a place that might seem an anti-government fantasy taken to an extreme, people desperately yearn for all the burdens of government…that Americans gripe about. …One lesson of South Sudan is that government and regulations are like oxygen: You don’t appreciate them until they’re not there.South_Sudan_022

Notice how he wants to make it seem like the choice is South Sudan on one hand versus “all the burdens of government” on the other.

To be fair, Kristof does attempt a serious argument later in his column.

Two political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, argue that America’s achievements rest on a foundation of government services… “We are told that the United States got rich in spite of government, when the truth is closer to the opposite,” they write. Every country that journeyed from mass illiteracy and poverty to modernity and wealth did so, they note, because of government instruments that are now often scorned. …What we Americans excel at are our institutions. We have schools, laws, courts, police, regulators, bureaucracies, safety nets — arms of a government that is often frustrating but always indispensable. These institutions are the pillars of our standard of living. …Government, laws and taxes are a burden, indeed, but they are also the basis for civilization.

I haven’t read the work of Hacker and Pierson, but there’s been extensive research about the factors that produce economic growth. So if Hacker and Pierson are merely claiming that certain things traditionally provided by governments – such as rule of law, protection of property rights, enforcement of contracts, courts and police, and national defense – are associated with economic growth, then we’re on the same page.

But that’s an argument for a small state. Indeed, I’ve pointed that the United States (and other nations in the western world) became rich in the 1800s when there was a limited government providing these core “public goods.”

And at the time, there was virtually no redistribution. Not only in the United States, but in other developed nations as well.

The problem is that Kristof and other statists want large welfare states with lots of redistribution. And those are the policies that lead to less prosperity. And perhaps even fiscal chaos.

Indeed, that’s the argument behind the Rahn Curve. A small amount of (properly focused) government is associated with growth. But once the public sector gets too large, then government spending saps a nation’s economy.

To conclude, perhaps there is common ground. If Kristof is willing to admit that a bloated welfare states is misguided, then I’ll be willing to say that no government can lead to South Sudan.

P.S. There are serious scholars who argue “public goods” can be provided privately. Click here for a good introduction to the issue.

P.P.S. Leftists like to share the quote from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes about “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”This statement is even etched in stone at the headquarters of the internal revenue service.

What folks conveniently forget, though, is that Holmes reportedly made that statement in 1904, nine years before there was an income tax, and then again in 1927, when federal taxes amounted to only $4 billion and the federal government consumed only about 5 percent of economic output.

As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”

P.P.P.S. In his column, Kristof uses Trump as a foil even more than Cruz. Since I’m unconvinced that Trump believes in smaller government, I didn’t include those excerpts (while Cruz, even while he has some views I don’t like, seems to be a sincere and principled advocate of economic liberty).

This is a guest post by Dan Mitchell “a high priest of light tax small state libertarianism”
  • Gary Woodburn

    A permanent recession is produced due to economic inefficiencies which grow as the federal government grows. Our government mandates the use of ethanol. More energy is expended making a gallon of ethanol than the energy this gallon delivers to your car per a Cornell University study. Another example of an inefficiency is the federal sugar program that results in an inflated price of sugar in the United States. Candy makers are shifting operations to Canada and Mexico in part due to the federal sugar program. These inefficiencies are like the plaque that builds up in arteries to trigger a heart attack and the economy eventually has a heart attack due to the growth of the federal government. President Calvin Coolidge cut federal spending and the result was the “Roaring Twenties. If we could significantly cut federal spending inefficiencies plaguing our economy would evaporate and the next decade would be called the “Roaring 2020s”. Instead the central bankers are about to collapse the world economy by failing to understand the real problem since their medicine expands the federal government and kills their patient.

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