Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | June 30, 2010

America at the Crossroads: Who Needs Big Government?

Little Government will do.  In fact, it does the trick just fine.  Little ol’ bitty government, teeny-tiny government, “Who, little ol’ me?” government, Whos in Whoville government, so tiny Horton can hardly hear ‘em – it’s been getting the job done for years.  And Americans have been buying it.

The mistake the left has too often made is to try to parade banners through the street, and seek paroxysms of popular sentiment and climactic Moments of Eventhood for its agenda.  Signing ceremonies.  Watershed votes in Congress.  Campaign rallies in football stadiums with Greek column props.  Transformation!  Transformation we can all love – want, hanker after, give ourselves over to wholly.  Civilizational jumping-off points.  New Ages.

Consider environmental regulation. Many on the left want epic declarations on the matter.  Manifestos.  Raised fists.  High-flown rhetoric.  Sobbing and cheering.  The passage of laws and treaties outlawing human progress, natural processes, and cosmic fate, with a transcendent feeling of righteousness and purpose.  Hah!  Take that, all you stupid, cretinous fools who disagreed and doubted!

But such categorical demonstrations of unified, march-us-over-the-cliff purpose – the superficial hallmarks of Big Government – are not actually necessary to have the virtual effect of big government.  Little-Government Creep has a far better track record in that regard.

If Americans had been asked, in the 1970s, to fill stadiums and agitate for the outlawing of “too much carbon in the atmosphere, lest there be a climate apocalypse” they would have laughed themselves silly and told each other the latest Johnny Carson jokes on this hilarious topic.  But they weren’t.  They were asked instead to constitute an agency that would propose ways to protect us from pollution.

In the 1970s – I was here then – pollution was the stuff that came out of smokestacks, factory exhaust portals, and tailpipes.  “Pollution” meant toxins:  things that killed fish and made people cough and trees wither.  There were direct effects to observe, and it didn’t strain credulity to agree that it was the effluvia of particular chemical processes that were causing these observable effects.

Even that observability and traceability required some amount of analysis and theory to link all the causes and effects together.  Not every pollution alarm set off in the 1970s had a good foundation in empiricism.  But still, particulates could be measured with a fair degree of accuracy in the local air, and fish were dying downstream of factory exhaust valves but not up.  It mostly hung together, and the consequences were immediate and observable.

So the Environmental Protection Agency was created.  Just a little bit of government, for a good, pragmatic, limited purpose.  Just a little bitty, eensy-weensy bit of government, because who doesn’t want pollution curbed?  Come on, who doesn’t want that?

And yet we know what the outcome has been.  Thirty-plus years ago, I don’t know that any pundits or prognosticators foresaw, specifically, that a federal judge would eventually rule the element carbon to be a pollutant, and that the EPA would then propose to reduce its occurrence in the atmosphere, all based on a theory that has been shown, point by point, to have no basis in empiricism (and in particular, none that excludes alternative postulates).

The zeitgeist didn’t have us in the habit of thinking quite that big, back then.  But there were pundits who predicted that the new EPA would eventually slip the surly bonds of its due-process charter, and boldly go where no man had gone before in finding obtrusive ways to regulate us.  Naturally, those pundits were opposed with scoffing and scorn.  Just as naturally, they were right.

The point here is not that we shouldn’t ever try to accomplish anything through the agency of government.  The point is that opening the door to regulation through self-starting executive agencies is, inherently, opening the door to mission creep, effectively outside the checks and balances that constrain other projects of government.  No one who has invoked that axiom has ever, even once, been wrong.

What we have in the US today, for the most part, is a growing political landfill into which constant deliveries are being made, by suspiciously malodorous trucks, of the zealous “good ideas” of Little Government.  There’s so much Little Government, you can’t turn around without bumping into it.

Big, watershed Moments of Eventhood are by and large avoided:  pace the Obama base, Americans have not chosen, at any given point, to be really freakin’ transformed.  We remain wary of the trappings of Big Government:  the soaring collectivist rhetoric, the jackboots, the paid street thugs, the loudspeakers, the lying propaganda, the Potemkin villages, the Riefenstahlesque public displays.  Those, we’ve been properly warned about; those we see coming.

But I think the most important thing Americans have not come to grips with is the inevitability of Little Government metastasizing, and what to do about it.  In every realm of communal life, from education to health care, taxation to environmental regulation, we have good reason to understand by now that regulatory agencies and regulatory approaches are never satisfied.  They have never regulated enough; there is always more they want to get under their supervision.  We’ve had that demonstrated to us in living color for nearly a century – and yet still we think we can constitute regulatory regimes and not see them grow beyond their charter.

We have not yet determined to overcome the inattentive regulatory impulse that is causing the floodwaters of Little Government to rise around us.  And there’s an “asymmetry” here, because while Little Government can achieve the purposes of collectivist vision, without there ever being a watershed moment of public political transformation, the converse proposition is invalid.  We can’t creep our way out of the Little Government deluge.  We have to turn the spigot off – and that does require a Moment of Eventhood.  It requires recognizing what we are doing to ourselves, and figuring out how to have effective government again without handing it our ATM card and the key to our very soul.

We haven’t recognized that yet, even today.  We still aren’t thinking in terms of how the dynamic of agency-based regulation is itself the key problem we need to address.  If we truly recognized it, we’d be talking about it much, much more than we are in the right-wing infosphere.

Can we regulate some things without selling our lives and our future to regulatory agencies?  If so, how?  This is a question we can extrapolate from the Founders in addressing, but there is less direct appeal to them available on this topic than on many others.  Technology simply didn’t give the human regulatory impulse the scope, in 1789, that it gives today.  This is one we will have to figure out on our own.  Is there a middle path between zero or hardly any regulation – which was not actually the Founders’ proposition – and the surreal regulatory free-for-all we live with in 2010?

We’d better figure it out.  Our metastasizing Little Government has already transformed us:  a whole generation of Americans thinks that regulated health care-rationing programs are “the way health care works,” and has absolutely no idea that before Medicare and HMOs, things used to be done differently – more cheaply, and with greater discretion for every actor involved.

The fact that we’re even talking about denying each other salt in our diets, and snooping on each other’s home thermostats, is all the monument we need to the triumph of Little Government.  Forty years ago, the great majority of Americans would have recoiled at such propositions, exclaiming “1984!  Big Brother!”  Now politicians who were elected as “Republicans” offer them, and there is every likelihood they will actually come to a vote.  Little Government has done its work.  We can’t afford to accept it as our M.O., and focus only on the absence of monster hammer-and-sickle rallies, any longer.

Cross-posted at Hot Air.



  1. Great post J.E. Please keep up the “Crossroads” series – they’re great to read and confront that liberal Narrative.

    “Can we regulate some things without selling our lives and our future to regulatory agencies? If so, how?”

    This is a difficult question. You would probably almost have to start from scratch. Starting from scratch would probably require a dreadful wake up call (full blown economic collapse maybe?).

    The only thing I can think of is building in some laws to the regulations that disincent the regulatory agencies from “mission creep.” Something along the lines of “If Regulatory Agency X, which regulates widgets, expands its regulatory powers beyond widgets, it is required to receive a 10% smaller budget every fiscal year.”

    This seems though a better idea in theory as I’m sure politicians could find loopholes and the “restrictive” law in the regulation may be nebulous enough to circumvent. And of course the pols could create another regulatory agency (which is at least harder than expanding an already existing one).

    I think the best way to solve the over regulation problem is to appoint me dictator of America. I’ll wipe away all the oppressive regulations, scale back govt power, let Americans flourish and then step away. How’s that sound?

  2. Regulation is about control.

    It’s about micro-managing life such that outcomes will be ‘just’ and injustice will be avoided. Such is not possible of course, so ever more regulation is needed to make life ‘just’ ‘enough’.

    It’s exactly the wrong approach of course because the more life is controlled ‘for the good of all’, the less individual freedom and liberty exist… 1984 indeed.

    The problem is that left unregulated, some individuals and groups will mistreat their fellow man rather badly. Regulated or not, criminality is ever present. Where it not, neither regulations nor laws would be needed and all would live by the golden rule.

    To defend ourselves against that ‘criminal’ element, we end up imprisoning ourselves in an ever more regulated environment, a ‘prison’ of our own fashioning.

    Yes, original sin is as good an explanation for the fallibility of man’s nature as any other but even if true, we haven’t the luxury of ignoring the problems that give rise to the cries for regulation.

    So the real problem is, what’s an alternative to regulation, that effectively addresses the polluter, the wall-street scam and all the other ways men dream up doing ill to their fellow man?

  3. A first step is understanding clearly what regulatory agencies do. They do not address “criminality” per se; for once something is defined as a crime, the criminal justice system attends to it. The regulatory agencies have two major activities–setting standards and carrying out projects. These activities involve different incentives, pose different threats to freedom, and would have to be challenged in different ways.

    Setting standards can mean in essence defining when an activity becomes a crime, e.g., what particulate content is “pollution” and therefore not permitted, and what is not. Standards can also be used to direct funding to state, local, and private entities or to certify them or their products.

    The standards originate when special expertise is needed for a law to be properly defined. A law against selling meat containing unhealthy organisms needs some scientific definition of what organisms are unhealthy at what levels in the meat. Congress isn’t set up to do that, so an agency is set up to which the task can be passed.

    Creep sets in when the agency finds new ways to define its purview–and easier task when the law is more general or vague. If the law specifies “unhealthy organisms and foreign bodies in meat,” the agency has much less leeway; if the law says “unhealthy meat,” the agency can branch out into cholesterol control, etc.

    The sad secret about a lot of standard-setting is that there is no need for government to do it at all. Private “oversight” companies like Underwriters Laboratories have set standards for many years; now organic food organizations are getting into the field. Packing houses create their own brands and have a lot to lose if the brand doesn’t live up to its declared standards. Retailers, to maintain their own reputations, keep track of the brands they sell. Likewise, doctors, hairdressers, and others who use products on or recommend them to consumers.

    If we decide for regulation over consumer-driven vigilance in some areas, one improvement would be to demand that the basic statute be written narrowly to give the agency less leeway.

    Another would be to have separate agencies for administering the regulation of established risks and for reviewing the research on the discovery of new risks. That is, the meat inspectors should not also be finding the new health threats associated with meat.

    Pollution is one area in which comsumer-driven vigilance would have a hard time substituting for regulation. Separating research from enforcement and creating narrowly drawn statutes would help a lot in this field. As well as having Congress intervene when things get out of hand, as in the class of carbon regulation.

    Agencies also love projects. These are efforts to “educate” the population on some problem. A great example is child safety seats–big expenditures, followed by lots of new laws. Followed by what?

    Projects should be left to the private sector. Lots of profit and non-profit organizations have an interest in educating the public about lots of things, and they usually do so with more flair than government agencies.

    But if government agencies do underatke projects, they ought to be required to show results. This is true for standards, too. External evaluations of these efforts should be required on specific time lines. How many children’s lives were saved? How much dangerous meat was found? How much insider trading that resulted in what losses for normal investors? How much pollution at what degree of health risk? ALL, FOR HOW MUCH COST?

    That last is essential. Americans need to know what all this is costing, and we can start with simply the cost of the enforcement and of the compliance that goes along with it. We have the ability to measure these pretty well without getting into the cost in loss of iniative and self-reliance on the part of the population.

    I think people would open their eyes if they saw the cost vs. benefit of the campaign for flame-retardant children’s pajamas.

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