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Why we can not win: at least not yet

It has often been pointed out that whilst government spending is seen as a proper way to express compassion we (meaning those of us who believe that government is too big) can not win.

The above was brought home to me, yet again, yesterday. I watched a person being interviewed by a television presenter, and the person was requesting yet more government spending.

A decade ago a new government scheme was set up to pay for medical cover for children from poor families not already covered by Medicaid (the ‘working poor’). As welfare state schemes tend to do, the scheme has greatly grown in expense and yet ‘essential needs’ are not being met and so the person was on television (with the full support of the television interviewer) saying that the budget suggested by President Bush was not enough.

That is right, the wild spending George Bush (a man who gives the impression that he has never come upon a welfare state scheme that he did not like) is being attacked for not spending enough taxpayers money.

The man who was speaking was Republican Governor Perdue, from conservative Georgia, who was in Washington DC (with other State Governors) to ask for yet more taxpayers money. After all Georgia has implemented the scheme ‘aggressively’ (this was assumed to be a good thing to do) and, therefore, was facing a serious financial problem. As the people talked film was shown of a poor little child getting medical care (subtext – if you oppose the scheme you are a monster).

And the interviewer? A presenter for Fox News (the only non leftist television network). If the ever-more-government-spending-on-welfare-state-schemes position wins by default (for there were no arguments) when the people in the conversation are a Republican Governor from a conservative State and a presenter from Fox News then what hope is there of victory, what hope of rolling back government? At present not much.

One can trace the roots of the problem as far back as one likes. Some trace it to the error made by the German Samuel Pufendorf and other scholars, in confusing taxes and government spending with the virtue of charity (as if there could be such a thing as compulsory charity). FA Hayek even traced the problem right back to human nature evolving when humans lived in hunter-gatherer packs, so that there is always a danger of civil society (or the ‘extended order’) breaking down under the pressure of our near-brute instincts – the atavistic instinct for ‘fair shares’ dignified as the doctrine of ‘social justice’.

However, be at that is it may, the belief that government spending = compassion is clearly deeply rooted. Is there anything that we can do?

Well we can argue against ever bigger government and we can try and get these arguments to the public. But many people before us have tried to do this, over the decades, and they have failed to roll back government or even prevent its growth (although we do not know how bad things would be if they had not tried). And we can do all we can to help people in need, but all the efforts of charity (or ‘benevolence’, or the ‘independent sector’ to those who have been taught to think of ‘charity’ as a dirty word), have not convinced most people that ‘helping’ is not a proper role for government.

Perhaps only the bankruptcy of the Welfare States of the modern world will make people think again. It is possible that even bankruptcy will not make people turn against statism, perhaps ‘pack instincts’ will take over totally with total collectivism and the break down of civil society. However, if we keep on arguing as well as can and trying to get our arguments before people as much as we can, then perhaps people will consider the path of freedom, the path of voluntary interaction that is civil society, when social and political bankruptcy finally occurs.

29 comments to Why we can not win: at least not yet

  • …we (meaning those of us who believe that government is too big) can not win.

    Win what? At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, to get less government in our lives.

  • James

    I think your first mistake was in believing that Fox News runs from a principled standpoint.

    It does not.

    Fox News runs its own agenda, whatever it happens to be that week. It is populist and so is reflected in its inconsistent programming.

    Perhaps if it is to have any consistent running traits, being statist is one of them. I have not seen anything less than that, and to pretend otherwise is misguided.

    People around here seem quick to lick the boots of Fox News, simply because it appears, on the surface, to be the mirror opposite of some other news or ‘magazine’ (in format) outfits.

  • Well we can win on an individual level insofar as we can feel ideologically justified in evading government control (in taxes, draft, permits, certifications etc) as far as we are willing to (ranging from someone who finds every tax loophole possible, to someone who totally submerges their economic activity in grey/black markets).

    But you’re right, that is probably one of the biggest hurdle that libertarians etc need to overcome that more government spending/intrusion = more compassion. Even republican voodoo economics justify tax cuts only so that they can spend more money later on.

  • Dave

    The biggest obstacle to a libertarian society is libertarians, thats why you wont win.

    #1, they generally support uncontrolled borders, which leads to people of less liberal ‘tendences’ to move to the West. People like this (Link)
    #2, mass immigration is deflating wages for the lower level jobs which means people find it more difficult to manage without state support.


  • James, the point is not whether Fox is principled or not, whatever these principles may be, but whether there is any alternative in the mass media. As far as I know there is none.

  • Matt

    Its not about less or more government, its about better, more appropriate governance – certainly I believe that less government in our private lives would be a good thing, but a lot of the comments and articles seem to lack guidance on how things would work with smaller governance. Could anyone recommend any materials to educate me further?

  • To me the message should be rooted deeply in reason.

    If most people agree that more should be spent, then why do we need to be compelled to do so via taxation? Surley if people believe, then it should be voluntary. If the majority of pepole agree more should be spent but will not spend it, then that is hypocritical. It might also be that people say one thing so as not to appear “mean” but in reality they look after their families first. It is still hypocritical.

    What this rapidly boils down to is the realisation that those who want to spend money do not actually want to spend their own.

    I have long held the position that much of the social welfare shoudl be funded via party trusts. Political parties should stake their claim on what should be spent. They should then ask their members to pay into that fund so they can do the work their want to do for the people they feel need it. This way, if a Libertarian government was in power with a small state, then the other voters who disagree with a small state can still fund their own programmes. This takes the funding of “compassionate good causes” and “social justice” out of the realm of government and cyclical party fighting.

    Alas, this still does not “fix” the OPM issue (other peoples’ money), but I don’t want to fix that, I want to hold it up as a mirror so people can finally see.

  • mike

    “government spending = compassion”

    Is this not just another symptom of another problem – that people confuse law and ethics? What I mean is the common notion that whatever is illegal is likely also immoral (in the absence of any notion that what is illegal may merely be the offspring of State and rent-seeking groups).

    Sometime last year I recall a discussion with a Taiwanese chap about the driver licensing system in Taiwan. We began by talking about a friend of mine who had been involved in an accident and had had to pay a small fine to the local police for not carrying a valid license (i.e. a Taiwanese rather than American license). I said that since the actual driving test in Taiwan was ridiculously easy (compared with the UK driving test), the driving license was largely meaningless except as a crude source of police/government income in the form of fines for people who didn’t carry one. That point seemed to pass without objection. Then I went further: as the accident had been the other guy’s fault I questioned why my friend should pay the fine (about £100) – to which the Taiwanese chap indignantly replied: “because he didn’t have a license.”

    Total Brick Wall.

    It is conversations like that that convince me of not only how easy it is for people to blindly follow the law without question, but that there is a pervasive belief that whatever is illegal must therefore be immoral.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes people do say “it is the law” meaning every stupid regulation. Sadly when they stop saying “it is the law” (with feeling) they tend to regard crimes such as theft as O.K. (as well as not filling the correct government form in triplicate).

    It is part of the problem of confusing “the law” (which should be respected with government statutes and regulations (which are normally absurd, and in only a minority of cases have anything to do with the principles of law). But this is another story.

    As for confusing law and ethics. Yes it happens all the time.

    “You are against the drug laws, so you must be in favour of drugs”.

    “You are against laws against pictures of naked ladies, so you must have such pictures in your house”.

    And so on and so on.

    The basic point that their is a difference between bad bahaviour (as in sins) and crimes (as in violations of other people’s bodies or goods) passes a lot of people by.

    On Fox.

    Actually I rather like Fox – although I do not “lick its boots” (a Fox in boots – that gives me an odd mental picture). But the point is valid – Fox is not an antistatist T.V. network. Libertarians do get on Fox, but then so do a lot of Democrats and (of course) moderate Republicans.

    Fox came into being in 1997 because R.M. noticed that Republicans and nonparty conservatives were not getting a fair deal in the media – he thought if a news broadcaster gave them 50% (or perhaps a little more) of the airtime a lot of people would tune in – and they have.

    What would happen if Fox came out denouncing the existance of Social Security and other programs – well it would go down the drain.

    The fact that it does sometimes have people on (indeed they are regulars) who denounce S.S. as a Ponzi scheme is about as good as we can expect.

    An editorial line against the Welfare State (with public opinion as it is) would be commercial suicide.

    As for politicians – actually I take a positive view of a minority of them and this makes me MORE depressed (rather than less depressed).

    For example, I believe that Ronald Reagan really did want to hold back Welfare State spending – both as Governor of California and as President.

    And I believe that Margaret Thatcher really did want to hold back the Welfare State in Britain.

    Of course, in Califoria health, education and welfare spending continued to rise, just as the “entitlement programs” continued to grow under President Reagan.

    In Britain (to the constant dishonest noise from the B.B.C. about “cuts”) Welfare State spending contined to grow when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

    This does not mean that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were evil – it means the forces they were up against were (and are) incredibly strong.

    For example, whatever people may think of Congressman Tom Tancredo on immigration, he is an ex head of the Independent Institute in Colorado – he knows that things like the Federal Department of Education are unconstitutional and damaging, yet he does not say that on his website (or anywhere else).

    Why would that be?

    The fear of upsetting public opinion too much.

    In fact things have got worse in this area over time. After all as recently as 1980 Ronald Reagan pledged to get rid of the Department of Education.

    “But if a person with a long record of opposing government spending in the legislature became head of the executive, things would be better”.

    Well perhaps. But (for example) Rick Perry was (even though he was a Democrat) known as one of the strongest enemies of government spending in the State Legislature of Texas – and he has been an openly conservative Republican Governor of Texas for more than six years.

    What success has he had in rolling back government? Not much.

    And till there is something to change the climate of opinion (that holds that government spending = compassion) it is hard to see how he can have much success.

    Lastly – yes I would love to see people (who could) donate to voluntary trusts (run by political parties if they wish) to spend on health, education and welfare (and other noble things).

    However, people will not settle for voluntary funding – they demand compulsion (that is the problem).

    Perhaps once the PRINCIPLE of government funding for health, education and welfare (pensions and so on) has been conceded (or, at least, conceded at central govenrment level – so that people can not “vote with their feet” by moving to a different local area or State that does not see such things as part of the role of government) there is no way back from growth of government – till bankruptcy (social, economic and political) or, at least, till very serious problems become obvious.

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    I think you are all missing the fundamental reason why governement spending is called for by so many people:

    Most people see governement money as “free”. It grows on trees. They don’t understand that it all comes from our pockets. Just like people who support massive lawsuits against companies–comapnies are “rich”, and should be bled. Of course, we all pay in the long run as companies raise prices to compensate for lawsuit losses, but most people just cannot or will not connect those dots.

    As long as people see government money as appearing out of thin air, or as an endless wellspring, they will never even think of calling for less governement spending. And besides, it’s for the children!

  • mike

    “Perhaps once the PRINCIPLE of government funding for health, education and welfare…has been conceded…there is no way back from growth of government – till bankruptcy (social, economic and political)”

    Yes agreed – but when was this principle conceded? Certainly off the top of my head I could mention Lloyd George with national insurance in the UK, but before that my history fails me. Is there any history of state welfare pre-20th Century?

  • David Roberts

    I am not religious but I think this article by R.R. Reno entitled: The Closing of the American Mind Revisited, at http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=646 is on the right track.

    The prosperity created by the West is giving an increasing number in the world the option to consider this problem of how we should live.

    My faith is that education and human interaction, as on this site, will enable humanity to achieve further advances. Identifying an agreed and rational morality, or possibly several agreed and rational moralities, will go a long way to enabling us all to win.

  • Duncan

    To further what Alfred said —

    I was reading a discussion board a couple days ago on some government wast in the state of Massachusetts.. seems the MBTA (Mass Bay Transit Authority) screwed up when ordering more cars for our public transportation system to the tune to 101 million over the next few years.

    One person went nuts at the idea that this is a bad thing and that this is just one more problem with the government running things. He vehemently pointed out, after some quick googling and math, that this would only work out to like 3.00 per person per year, so what’s the big deal. So suddenly a 101 million dollar waste in reality is only 3.00 out of my pocket per year… what a greedy fuck I am.

  • Alfred: I disagree. Most people I know are not economists, but they understand perfectly well where government money comes from. After all, most of us pay taxes.

    Neither is this about Other People’s Money (or mostly it is not). Paul says: “However, people will not settle for voluntary funding – they demand compulsion (that is the problem)”. Exactly. And the reason for this is that while most people are willing to donate to various causes they deem worthy, they are afraid of being taken for suckers, and be left the only ones to donate.

  • Its not about less or more government, its about better, more appropriate governance

    No, it is most certainly about less government, not ‘better’ government.

    I do not want better government, I want less government. I do not want better regulations, I want less of them. I do not want ANY state involvement in culture. I want to see the BBC broken up and privatised. I do not want a better DTI, I want no DTI at all. I want no NHS, not a ‘better’ NHS. I do not want a ‘better’ Town and Country Planning and Land Act, I want a return to when there was none at all. All those regulations ‘protecting’ Britain’s great buildings? I want a return to the legislative framework of when those great buildings were actually built! The only way to get a ‘better’ state is to have a greatly smaller one.

  • fjfjfjfj

    Very good point about the planning and the buildings.

  • LLP

    Over various boozy discussions with socialistically-inclined friends, I’ve often heard one argument that I think of as “alarm-clock socialism” (perhaps there’s a better term that I haven’t discovered). This is the view that, just as I might want to get up at 7am, but require a noisy beeping thing to stop me from sleeping in until noon, I might want to donate to causes I believe in strongly, but require the taxman to coerce me into actually doing it. Because coercion is required to make the system work, it has to be the government that does it – it’s hard to see any way a private-sector actor could perform the same task.

    It’s quite a nice, internally-consistent argument. You can argue against it by pointing out that if you don’t donate to a cause without this coercive actor forcing you to do so, you probably don’t really believe in it in any meaningful sense – but it’s disappointingly (albeit unsurprisingly) hard to persuade people of that.

    It normally winds up with everyone smilingly agreeing to disagree, with me secretly thinking “filthy statist” and them thinking “heartless right-wing bastard”. Sigh

  • JohnOfBorg

    LLP: Perhaps you should point out how selfish and inconsiderate (and downright childish) the ‘alarm-clock socialist’ is being in wanting to make everybody else suffer for his own lack of willpower.

    In a libertarian society, perhaps there would be a market for a ‘Big Brother’ service, whereby you (voluntarily) sign a contract binding you to certain onerous obligations, and agree to accept humiliating penalties if you fail to fulfil them. The premium service might even include a personal jobsworth-with-clipboard to keep close tabs on you.

    Perhaps the contract would have a ‘safe word’ get-out clause, as with other S & M fetishes.

  • LLP: I find it very useful to reverse the arguments, such as:

    “How can you justify such greed for other people’s money?”

    Try to never fight on the ground chosen by the other side, make them might on the ground you chose.

    The alarm clock is a terrible analogy as the state is an alarm clock that goes off even of you do not actually want or need to get up at 7am… and “You can argue against it by pointing out that if you don’t donate to a cause without this coercive actor forcing you to do so, you probably don’t really believe in it in any meaningful sense” is really self evidently true.

  • David B. Wildgoose

    A Welfare State is here to stay. So let’s make it as fair and equal as we can – scrap all the ridiculous entitlement plans and provide EVERYBODY with an identical Citizen’s Income paid for out of a Flat Rate Tax.

    Whatever you need you then pay for out of that income, or by charities persuading you to give to them from that income. The State will have provided, but its provision will be self-limiting because it will not rise above the point at which a majority of tax-payers will squeal with the pain of their taxes.

    Libertarians aren’t anarchists, they do believe in some government, just as small as possible. A Citizen’s Income will allow the privatisation of all welfare.

  • Thon Brocket

    There’s no cure for any of it, under the present constitutional arrangement whereby we elect one legislature and give it the power both to spend and to tax. That Georgia governor, Republican or no, is on the stump when he’s on the TV, and what he wants is votes and what he’s offering is the standard corrupt bargain by which he’ll deliver the state goodies for your vote and (so he promises) tax somebody else to pay for it. Corrupt statist stasis is the equilibrium end-point under those conditions, which is why you can’t tell Blair from Cameron, or Merkel from Schroeder.

    Now if we had one bunch of politicians legislating, and another (separately elected, and perhaps controlled by a different party) with the ability to kill legislation if they weren’t prepared to fund it, the electoral motivation to populist tax-and-spend would disappear, and we’d all be a lot freer.

    It’s the system, the structure that’s the problem; not the electorate, not even, fundamentally, the politicians. Change the system, or get used to the consequences.

  • One point I did not raise.

    Until 1908 in the UK, people who gained an income from the state were not allowed to vote, with the theory/wisdom that they would naturally vote for more money for themselves and so would be a form of corruption.

    I think the wisdom of the original ruling holds. Witness the 1m people in NHS employ who will vote against any party that threatens their jobs. Note that it is not about the NHS, but their jobs and, from the Union perspective, their control of a nationwide labour force with influence over a de facto monopoly.

  • Paul Marks

    I am not sure you are correct TimC.

    I think government ministers (who were paid, even though ordinary members of the Houses of Commons were not – before 1911) could vote, as were military people and so on.

    However, I do not actually know this – I only “think” it (so you could be correct).

    There were various bills in the 18th century to disqualify various people who earned a living from the government from voting, and some of them were passed.

    In the 19th century many people argued that govenment employees should not have the vote (although I do not think they got any statutes passed to achieve this in Britain or the United States).

    As for people on government benefits. Before 1832 there was no uniform system for voting in Britain – in some seats (such as Preston) virtually every man had the vote, and in others virtually nobody did (and a lot of big towns were not represented – because they had not been big towns in the middle ages). However, then a uniform system came in which demanded that people live in a property worth such and such a sum (a varation of the 40 shilling free holder franchice that already existed for county seats).

    The system got changed in 1867 and 1884 (and was different for local government – there was a ratepayer franchise from 1834, for the Poor Law, and 1835 for councils). Perhaps it was 1918 when the system got changed so that just about every man (and women over 30 got the vote) I do not remember when the vote for local councils got given to people who did not pay local tax.

    On Mike’s question.

    There have been many examples in history of cities where there was taxpayers money for the poor. For example, Athens in its decline went for this sort of vote buying (it started with Pericles), and Rome during the decline of the Republic – and other major cities under the Empire where “liberty” (libertas) had come to mean (to judge by the coins) free (or at least cheap) bread.

    Over the centuries many cities used to plunder the country to buy the votes (or at least the quiet) of the urban mob.

    But a whole country?

    Well many people suggested it (Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII springs to mind). And, of course, there was the Tudor Poor Law (or rather laws) – with local magistrates allowed to impose a property tax to deal with the poor in various ways. Major Acts after the Tudor period are those of 1723, 1782 and 1834 (I will not give the details here). However, yes the pre Lloyd George system (basically the 1834 system of workhouses and out relief controlled by elected representatives of the poor law ratepayers) was not a great burden. Voluntary “friendly societies” (mutual aid) was the big thing for the “working class” before the age of goverment “insurance”.

    Otto Von Bismark is (as far as I know) the first person to get modern phony “insurance schemes” set up (Lloyd George copied him and added special unployment pay). I will resist the temptation to go into one of my antiBismark rants – otherwise this comment will go for pages.

    State education was not one of his.

    State education was not that widespread in the 18th century (for example claims that Scotland had state schools for everyone are simply not true), but became much more common in the 19th century. In Europe Prussia led the way, and in the United States Massachusetts did.

    The early government schools and compulsory attendance laws of New England had largely gone away or never been enforced (not many government schools in New Hampshire in the 1820’s – and just about none in Rhode Island till 1828). As for real universal attendance – that is H. Mann stuff in Mass.

    Before someone points it out……..

    Yes I meant “1996” not “1997” on Fox – and I missed out a bracket when I typed about how people confuse the law of nonviolation (which should be respected) with general government regulations (which are often daft).

    memad’s points were well taken.

    Yes people often consider government spending “free”.

    Yes people often do not understand that hitting “big business” or “the rich” hurts everyone. And often the rich do not understand it themselves. Rich men like Ben Stein are very good businessmen, but they are very bad guides to policy. Having a “good head for business” does not mean you have a good head for anything else (and vice versa).

    And Yes – the ritual chant of “the children, the children” (with pictures of the children and so on) is a powerful magic spell that seems to make most people accept virtually any government spending or regulation.

  • Paul Marks

    On the citizens income:

    So everyone get paid some money (funded by tax).

    How much?

    If it is enough to pay for living costs, education, medical care (and so on). Then the country that does it goes bust.

    If it is not enough to do these things then people demand seperate programs to fund these things things (government schools, university funding, health care………).

    Milton Friendman supported a “negative income tax” for the poor – and even that had the above problem. Which is why “the earned income tax credit” has not led to anyone suggesting that such things as Social Security or Meidicare or Medicaid or the Department of Education be abolished.

    A system that (say) provided wealthy people with a citizens income as well as the poor would have the financial problem in spades.

    Although (at least) it would not have the discentive to work that Milton Friedman’s plan did.

    According to Friendman one would lose fifty cents (of the N.I.T.) for every Doller one earned. That being so many (perhaps most) poor or poorish people would not work.

    Being an academic who loved his work, Milton Friedman never understand how many millions of people regard their jobs as “Adam’s curse” pain and humiliation. If they could have a “decent income” without doing these jobs they would not do them – certainly they would not do them if they also lost 50cents of every Dollar they earned.

    On States having houses of the legislature elected differently.

    Well the Federal government has that (the House and the Senate) it was shown as far back as 1824 (when the tax on imports went up without the excuse of war – it went up again in 1828) that this does not work to prevent the growth of government.

    What did work (before the 1930’s) was the Constitution with its limitation on what government could spend money on, States could spend money on anything that State constitutions allowed – but tacpayers could vote with their feet and that kept taxe and spend down. Of course with the New Deal the Constitution of the United States (as far as limiting govenment spending goes) became a dead letter.

    At the State level many States had one house elected according to population (the big cities) and a Senate representing counties (the rural interest) and these to some extent limited each other.

    But then the Supreme Court said that the Constitution forbad that (the catch all 14th Amendment or ratehr the crack brained “interpretation” of it – someone “equal protection” forbids a real Senate at State level).

  • David B. Wildgoose

    The reason why a Citizen’s Income works is that it deliberately privatises all welfare – so no state pensions, unemployment benefit, disability allowances, the works. And it has to be universal, because that means a very straightforward distribution of the funds without massive waste in a regulatory bureaucracy deciding whether or not someone should get the allowance and how much they should get.

    This is something I’ve never understood. Those of us who pay more in taxes also get less in benefits, and they use some of that tax money they take (steal) from us in order to employ people with the job of preventing us from getting the same benefits that they freely hand out to those who don’t pay into the system.

  • David Roberts

    Am I a Libertarian?

    1. I accept no automatic right of anyone else to dictate my actions or inactions. In other words, I am responsible for my actions.

    2. I observe that: governments, systems and rules made by others are ineffectual, wasteful or just wrong. Milton Friedman said it better than me, but it doesn’t just apply to money. No amount of adjusting structures of government will prevent many individuals from subverting, bucking or bending the system to their own purposes. If they so chose.

    My first reason is moral, my second pragmatic.

  • Paul Marks

    I am not going to examine the “citizens income” idea, as I have already done so above. At my age repeating myself is irritating, and I have long passed the stage when I believed that arguments can convince people of something that they firmly do not wish to be convinced of.

    On David Roberts’ comment:

    Libertarians claim that regarding “dictating inactions” people should be able to try and stop someone violating (robbing, raping, murdering) other people, and should be able to punish violators.

    Some would claim that this means we are not really libertarians at all but, rather, “propertarians” (others deny this and say the “equal liberty” principle means there is no contradiction between being a libertarian and opposing violators), if this is so – so be it.

  • David Roberts

    Thank you Paul, please add to point 1:-

    I also accept that I have no automatic right to dictate actions or inactions to anyone else. They are responsible for their actions.