Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
“The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
The nature of government is to grow. Much like the weeds in a garden, unless the populace casts a wary eye on government and makes the effort to uproot some unwelcome sprouts from time to time, the government will continue to expand in scope and power until it consumes every detail of our lives.
As Ronald Reagan once said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Conservatives and Libertarians have long prided themselves on fighting the good fight, so to speak, in attempting to hack away at Leviathan. Right-leaning blogs, political parties, and organizations, are replete with pithy and catchy phrases about the incompetence of bureaucracy, the encroaching evils of the central government, the virtues of the unruly Tea Party, and glib talk of dismantling The Establishment.
Patriotism on the Right often equates to denouncing, jeering, and disavowing the government. But to some extent laughing at the incompetence or decrying the corruption of the government is a bipartisan affair. Even those who favor expanding the function and powers of government aren’t hesitant to ridicule the “red tape.” This was exhibited in the movie Zootopia which depicted sloths running the DMV.
Just last week I visited a local tag agency—Oklahoma’s version of the DMV—to renew my driver’s license. Like most trips to a government office, it was about as enjoyable as a Vogon poetry slam. It was a fruitless effort because they didn’t have the means to accept a credit card payment for the new license and I didn’t have cash on me. This struck me as unusual since they were able to accept cash for renewing my car tag. Some of the other hapless bystanders and I chided the oddly targeted prohibition against credit card payments. In that moment, our political affiliations didn’t matter. We were universally members of the anti-stupid party.
At some level we all accept that government can be corrupt, inept, and wasteful—that government can be the problem. But why might government be the problem? What is it about government that makes it grow? Why does it seemingly become clumsier than its free-market counterparts? Why are government employees—right or wrong—perceived as being incompetent, lazy, and potentially corrupt?
This was the very question economist Milton Friedman sought to address in his aptly named lecture “Why Government is the Problem.” Friedman asked, “Why is it that able, public-spirited people produce such different results according to whether they operate in the political or the economic market? Why is it that if a random sample of the people…were to replace those who are in Washington, our policies would very likely not be improved?”
This warrants a bit of a digression, for in our current, poisonous political climate many seem to be doubting this is true. I have heard it said—more than a few times and by individuals who ought to know better—that we could improve our policies by simply appointing politicians randomly instead of through elections. This is more than some crackpot theory your crazed uncle pontificates over Thanksgiving dinner. Publications such as the Boston Globe and Current Affairs have advocated the lottery system of appointing leaders as a means of “improving” some perceived ill.
As an insider of the government myself—both working for the State Auditor and Inspector and auditing governments for nearly a decade—I can attest that the men and women in government are no more inherently incompetent, lazy, or corrupt than the public at large. It is true that they are less productive than their private sector counterparts; but if those same people took up jobs in the private sector they’d be more productive, just as people in the private sector would likely be less productive if they replaced government workers.
Friedman offers his explanation:
“Government actions often provide substantial benefits to a few while imposing small costs on many…self-interest is served by different actions in the private sphere than in the public sphere. The bottom line is different.
An enterprise started by a group of people in the private sphere may succeed or fail. Most new enterprises fail (if the enterprise were clearly destined for success, it would probably already exist). If the enterprise fails, it loses money. The people who own it have a clear bottom line. To keep it going, they have to dig into their own pockets. They are reluctant to do that, so they have a strong incentive either to make the enterprise work or to shut it down.
Suppose the same group of people start the same enterprise in the government sector and the initial results are the same. It is a failure; it does not work. They have a very different bottom line. Nobody likes to admit that he has made a mistake, and they do not have to. They can argue that the enterprise initially failed only because it was not pursued on a large enough scale. More important, they have a much different and deeper pocket to draw on. With the best intentions in the world, they can try to persuade the people who hold the purse strings to finance the enterprise on a larger scale, to dig deeper into the pockets of the taxpayers to keep the enterprise going. That illustrates a general rule: If a private enterprise is a failure, it closes down—unless it can get a government subsidy to keep it going; if a government enterprise fails, it is expanded. I challenge you to find exceptions.”
Conservatives know that it is the incentives, not the intentions that bridge the productivity gap between the public and private sectors. The free market pressures on private businesses—pressures that equate to success in business or failure—do not exist in government. It is only natural that without these pressures people begin to behave in a more self-serving manner.
All my life I’ve heard politicians—on both sides of the aisle—call for government to be run more efficiently. And greater efficiency is certainly a noble endeavor. But what’s truly needed aren’t more politicians vowing to make things more efficient, but politicians who are mindful of the effects of the incentives government programs and processes create.
I think 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater said it best in his book, The Conscience of a Conservative:
“I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”
Goldwater was interested in addressing the disease, not the symptom. His quote is refreshingly different than the standard pledges to eliminate inefficiencies, waste, fraud, and abuse, and it may be among the reasons Goldwater suffered one of the most crushing Presidential election defeats in U.S. history. This is not a truth we want to hear. Generally speaking, we’d much rather be told by our leaders that government can somehow be made right by tracking down all those incompetent, lazy, and corrupt G-Men and giving them the boot than be told meaningful reform is going to hurt.
Conservatism does not exist in the mythical world of populist platitudes. Conservatism dares to examine the root causes, which requires discipline, patience, wisdom, and prudence; virtues that are difficult to come by and far less fun than shouting taxation is theft! on social media.
With all the talk on the right denouncing government it’s easy to get the wrong impression that conservatism is anti-government. But conservatives are very much pro-government. Conservatives want a limited government, not a weak government. Conservatives don’t begin with how do we make government more efficient and less intrusive? for the very nature of government is inefficiency and intrusion. Conservatives ask instead what is the purpose of government?
If the purpose of government is to defend the nation, a weak military just won’t do—even if it can be shown to be less efficient than a privatized military. If justice is a proper function of government, then an impotent judicial branch is hardly desirable. If the role of government is to govern commerce, then the taxpayer is not better served by abolishing the SEC. That which the government ought to do should be defended and funded.
I mentioned earlier Reagan’s famous quote that government “is the problem.” This quote alone has generated countless memes. But the full context of the quote is far less anarchist: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Reagan was limiting his criticism of government to a specific situation, not denouncing government itself. The full context of nuanced speech is often difficult to capture in tweets, bumper-stickers, and campaign slogans. And what may get lost in translation here is that conservatism isn’t trying to destroy the government but ensure the government stays in its proper lanes.
Government isn’t evil but it does possess a certain latent destructive power that, if left unchecked, will continue to grow until it has consumed what is good in the individual and in society at large. Conservatives have offered two solutions for defending against encroaching government: 1) limiting the power of government to only those functions not suitable for the private sector and 2) balancing competing interests within the government so that no one “proper function” becomes powerful enough to engulf the others.
A deeper discussion about both of these solutions awaits us in Part 4.