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Ungovernable

Posted By Russ Roberts On February 21, 2010 @ 10:53 am In Politics | Comments Disabled

There’s a debate going on in the punditsphere about whether America is ungovernable. We can’t seem to get anything done. On one side people argue that the failure of health care legislation and cap and trade prove that America is ungovernable. On the other side are those who argue that those are unpopular and America is as governable and ungovernable as ever.

I think it’s the wrong debate. Thomas Friedman in the New York Times [1] unintentionally illustrates why:

A small news item from Tracy, Calif., caught my eye last week. Local station CBS 13 reported: “Tracy residents will now have to pay every time they call 911 for a medical emergency. But there are a couple of options. Residents can pay a $48 voluntary fee for the year, which allows them to call 911 as many times as necessary. Or there’s the option of not signing up for the annual fee. Instead they will be charged $300 if they make a call for help.”

Welcome to the lean years.

Yes, sir, we’ve just had our 70 fat years in America, thanks to the Greatest Generation and the bounty of freedom and prosperity they built for us. And in these past 70 years, leadership — whether of the country, a university, a company, a state, a charity, or a township — has largely been about giving things away, building things from scratch, lowering taxes or making grants.

But now it feels as if we are entering a new era, “where the great task of government and of leadership is going to be about taking things away from people,” said the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum.

Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag.

The lean years? The lean years!?!?!?!!?

Government has never been fatter.

The crisis of government in America is that it does too many things badly instead of doing a few things well.

We don’t need more money for government. We need government to do what citizens struggle to do for themselves. We can debate what that range of activities is. I am on the side that government has taken on too many tasks that we can do as well or better for ourselves. When government takes on too many tasks, it is hard to find money to do the core activities of government well.

The ungovernability aspect of this problem is that it is hard to take away things from people and thrive politically. If you think 911 is an important activity of government, it is easy to keep it free. Get rid of all the nonsense government does that doesn’t need doing. Go back to the “lean” years of 1995, say, when California and the Federal government spent a lot less. Those weren’t the dark ages. But along the way, a bunch of money got added to a bunch of deparments and for some reason, instead of saying that was a mistake or unnecessary or best done privately, we start charging for 911.

That is a sign of ungovernability and it comes from ignoring the proper role of government.

Stop subsidizing housing. It’s bad enough that the Feds do it. But there is a vigorous California effort on top of the Federal effort. Stop subsidizing food and rich farmers. Stop policing trans fats. And smoking in restaurants. Stop trying to steer education from the top down. Stop creating programs for retirement and health that give money to rich people. Stop subsidizing rail travel. Stop all corporate welfare. Stop all tariffs and quotas. Get rid of the nanny state.

The mission creep of government makes it obvious that governmen is poorly run. Get out of the things it does poorly and do important things well.

How do we get there from here?

Read. Listen. Educate yourself. Teach your children. Talk to your neighbors. Vote as wisely as you can.

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[1] in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/opinion/21friedman.html

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