Friday, February 28, 2014

The Dishonesty of Transportation Spending

I have written before about the federal highway system ("The Glory of Eisenhower?") and made clear that I think it is largely a fiasco, a means of political patronage and control which has, through good PR, made even conservatives think it is a good idea. However, today, I want to look at a more general question, "What is the purpose of federal transportation spending?"

I was watching the news this morning, and heard state leaders whining that gridlock was preventing new transportation spending, preventing states from "necessary upgrades." My immediate thought was "Why don't they pay for them themselves?" And it is a valid question. One of the states mentioned was Pennsylvania, hardly one of those small or impoverished states which argue they need support from the other states to upgrade. (Though that begs the question if they have so little commerce and industry they can't afford roads, who is using all this infrastructure? Or is it just there to have Robert Byrd's name attached? [Or some comparable local state rajah.])

And that led me to think about how dishonest the whole idea of federal transportation funds (and similar schemes such as federal education funds) really are. In many ways, they remind me of the dishonesty I found in corporate taxes which I described in "The Foolishness of Corporate Taxes" and "Two Thoughts on Taxation". In that case, I pointed out that, either as consumers or shareholders, all corporate taxes are actually paid by individual citizens, and thus, in the end, corporate taxes are yet another individual tax, just disguised in a way that panders to envy ("Envy Kills", "Envy Kills II", "Envy and Analogy"), but which also cases the incidence of taxation to be much less even and predictable.

Federal funding of activities that should be run by the states is quite similar, in that, the main purpose is to disguise the true extent of state taxation and spending, while providing the federal government both additional revenue and federal jobs, as well as giving them yet another tool with which to control the state. (There is one additional issue, inflation, but we shall discuss that after the more general discussion.)

Think about the case for most states. Your citizens pay both state taxes to provide for services. Ideally, you would want to provide the maximum of services for the minimum of taxes, but you know that is impossible. So, though the people complain, you enact taxes to support your level of state spending. However, along comes an additional need, and, because of voter complaints, you are loathe to raise taxes. What do you do? Do you raise taxes and lose votes and support? Or fail to provide a service and have the same result?

Well, along comes the federal government with a solution. They will raise federal taxes, which will not make voters upset with the state government, and will then, through a new federal agency, give that money back to you, after deducting money to fund the new administrative apparatus, and maybe a little bit to contribute to the poorer states. It sounds like a bad deal in one way, for most states they will end up getting back less than the citizens are taxed*. On the other hand, politically, it is a goldmine. You can leave taxes alone and yet get, essentially, free money. The federal government will probably raises taxes whether you take your cut or not, so why not enjoy this found money and please the voters?

Now, some will argue that, perhaps for large or wealthy states this is true, but for smaller and poorer states, this sort of federal funding is essential, without it they would be worse off. However, a bit of thought suggests this is rarely the case. After all, except for a few exceptional cases where a tiny state has a very influential representative (eg Robert Byrd, again), states receive funding largely in proportion to their size, population or wealth. There are exceptions, such as the generosity often shown Iowa and New Hampshire right before primary season, but otherwise, programs tend to be allocated based on some projection of "need", which generally follows population density for most things. And, if we add tot his the fact that most federal programs have considerable overhead, it seems likely that even poor states end up receiving less in benefits than their citizens pay in taxes.

Or, rather, they would, were it not for one other factor. The federal government can print money. Of course, this does not eliminate the fact that every dollar spent must come from somewhere, that the goods bought still must be taken from someone, and thus inflationary money growth, though giving the appearance of creating money out of nothing, is really a hidden tax against savings (among other ills**) But, because for a time people can fool themselves into thinking inflationary currency is free money, the government can give the appearance of doling out money created from thin air. Of course, as the ills of inflation harm most those who are most frugal, save the most and exercise the greatest fiscal responsibility, the end result is usually a major blow to future growth, leaving all states in dire economic straits, which is probably worse news for the poor states than the wealthy, who have accumulated savings upon which to draw. And thus, though the poor states may gain more superficial benefit, in the end they suffer most of all.

Of course, ideally, I would leave transportation functions in private hands (a position I know is unpopular -- "Non-Governmental Communal Solutions", "In a Nutshell", "Inconsistent Understanding"), but, until that becomes a reality, it seems to me both more honest, and more efficient, for these matters, and not just transportation, but education, poor relief and other functions currently at least partly funded by the federal government, to be left in the hands of the states, or even the counties and cities. Not only will it cut out the massive overhead, it will allow voters to see how much these services cost and to decide for themselves if it is worth it. And isn't that something we should want in our government? Honesty and the ability to assess the success or failure of various programs? More than that, isn't it quite telling that we go to great lengths to prevent people from obtaining just that sort of transparency?


* The question of how much wealth goes out of a state is complex, as for most states there are at least a few new federal jobs whenever a new program or department is created. So, even the overhead is not a complete loss from the point of view of state legislators. Of course, economically, the whole thing is a terrible misallocation of funds, but that is another matter. ("An Examination of the Economics and Sociology of Government Spending", "The Problems of Spending and Taxes", "The Case for Small Government", "Competition", "The Basics", "Greed Versus Evil", "The Secret of Success, or, Why Government Fails")

** See "Bad Economics Part 19", "Why Gold?", "Inflation and Uncertainty", "The Inflation Engine", "What is Money?" and "What is a Dollar?".


NOTE: I was looking for a single specific article ("Katrina and BP"), when I noticed that, in a period of a few days in July 2010, I wrote a large number of my favorite articles. Not just the four I am reproducing here, but also "Problematic Arguments", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government" and "What is Fair? or, How Game Theory Leads Us Astray", which I already reproduced, and a few lesser essays as well. I was so impressed by the quality of what I wrote in those few days (and a bit surprised that I wrote all of those essays in such a short period), that I decided to reprint them in my new blog. 

Plato's version of Socrates claims that his wisdom amounts to knowing that he does not know. I have many issues with Plato and his philosophy, but on this one point, which may be closer to the words of the historical Socrates than many other words Plato puts in his mouth, I am ready to agree that is an important part of wisdom.

As I grow older, I have come to realize that I have not gained as much knowledge as I would have expected. I have learned a lot, but I have also found out that, as time passed, much of what I first learned has been proved wrong, or at least qualified so much that I am no longer sure of the truth. Thanks to the rapid pace at which knowledge grows in the modern age, a large part of what we learn will eventually be tossed out.

However, there is one thing I have discovered with age, and that is a form of wisdom. As I look back over my earlier deeds, I have come to realize what a total fool I was, and how often. And I challenge anyone who can look at themselves with honest eyes to say any different about their own past. Oh, most of you will not have quite the idiocy I did. Thanks to drinking, nihilism, dissolute friends and a marked lack of self control, I managed to plumb the depths of youthful idiocy many, many times, but, even ignoring those extravagant mistakes, much of what I did with the rest of my life, many of the acts which seemed obvious and unobjectionable, later showed themselves in hindsight to be errors.

Not that I have regrets about this. It would be pointless to lament one's past, mostly because it would be impossible to do anything about it, but also because to wish to change what was is, in a way, to demand one's dissolution. After all, we are who we are ebcause of the path we took to this place, so to think of changing the past is to ask me to commit suicide, to eliminate what made me who I am. My history, the good and bad, the things I hold forth proudly (for now), and those I would rather hide, all of them made me the man I am, and thus I could not ask them to be any different.

But that does not mean there is nothing to learn from this discovery. One thing I have come to realize form looking at my past is that certainty is not what we often believe it to be. Looking back, many things I considered absolutely certain, things I though uncontested truth, have turned out to be mistaken. Actions I thought obvious, the only possible choice, proved later to be the wrong decision. Over and over throughout my past, the decisions I made, based on the best information available, proved to be wrong again and again.

And that is where this relates to my political philosophy. Because, if I can see in my past that many mistakes when I thought I was right, I am sure most others have the same experience, those times when what they thought sure was proved to be incorrect. Oh, maybe they had fewer, maybe more, but there must have been times in every life when certainty proved in retrospect to be nothing of the kind.

And that is what makes me worry about those who would impose their will upon others. ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism") You see, there are only two ways to explain such a decision. First, the person is simply a monster obsessed with controlling others, who does not care what he makes others do so long as they do it. Or, the alternative, and the claim most often put forward, that the would be ruler knows better than the masses how they should behave, and so they should let him rules so he can lead them out of error.

That second option worries me. Doubtless, if you select any individual, he knows better than some how to do any one thing, and others know better than him. However, can any individual be so certain that he knows better than absolutely everyone that he can say with certainty he should be allowed to tell them all how to act? Even more important, is he certain there is a single answer for him to impose, and not a different answer for every one of them?

You can see why this worries me. If everyone's past contains instances of mistakes when they thought they were right, then there are only three explanations for this continued insistence on giving orders. First, the individual knows he made errors in the past, but has decided this time he will not. In other words he is deluded. Second, he knows he can be incorrect, but so loves control, he does not care. That is, he is a tyrant. Third, he has inspected his past and has been unable to find any mistakes, concluding he is perfect in all things. That is, he is truly deluded, to a dangerous degree.

But this is a topic I have discussed before, and continue to discuss now in my series of posts on liberalism (See "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface"), so there is no need to go on. All I ask is that any reader who is tempted to give the government control ask themselves if they believe they could truly tell every individual what decision to make, even in a very limited scope. For instance, could you tell everyone on earth what color to paint their bathroom? What to have for dinner? What to name their first son? If not, if you cannot claim infallibility, or if you think there might be more than one right answer, then ask yourself how the government, made up of men like you, can do it.


In response to some of my posts along these lines, some responses have suggested I am arguing the wrong point. The government does not need to be free of error, just "good enough". But I would disagree. Since the basis offered for giving power to the government is that individuals make errors, errors from which the government needs to protect them, then the government must be perfect. Otherwise, if both individual choice and government intervention allow errors, what justification is there for giving the power to government? As it reduces freedom, costs more and is generally less efficient, what reason would there be to grant government control when it is no better than individual choice? And so, I am right in arguing the government must be close to perfect in order for it to be a viable alternative.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/07/08.

Too Much and Too Little

NOTE: I was looking for a single specific article ("Katrina and BP"), when I noticed that, in a period of a few days in July 2010, I wrote a large number of my favorite articles. Not just the four I am reproducing here, but also "Problematic Arguments", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government" and "What is Fair? or, How Game Theory Leads Us Astray", which I already reproduced, and a few lesser essays as well. I was so impressed by the quality of what I wrote in those few days (and a bit surprised that I wrote all of those essays in such a short period), that I decided to reprint them in my new blog. 

Reading my post "Clarifying an Earlier Post", as I often do, I tried to imagine the response of various readers. When I got to the part about the government spending too much on relief programs, I could conceive of two equally likely responses. One would agree completely, thinking of the Katrina debit cards, or one of dozens of examples of the government throwing away money. The other would disagree almost as strongly, thinking of all the government programs which fail completely to provide even semi-adequate support. And, considering both responses, I can agree with each side, as, strangely enough, both are right.

It is odd, but government is the one entity I know which is capable of spending so much to accomplish so little. I won't go into it in great detail tonight, as it is late, but I do want to mention this topic so I can return to it later.

What I said is still true, and I stand by it, government does spend too much, and in response to political pressure tends to increase spending, especially on failed or failing programs, which only makes things worse. And yet, at the same time, a lot of recipients either receive inadequate aid, or none at all. On the other hand, those who know how to game the system, even if they should be ineligible, can often get more than intended, sometimes much more.

Perhaps the best example of the first problem is the VA system. We hear constantly about the"underfunded" VA hospitals and other services, and yet what those complaints overlook is that the VA only appears underfunded in terms of the services provided, in terms of total funding at the top, it is well endowed, more so than many private hospitals which function better. 

Part, of course, is the government's tendency to overstaff in administrative positions, an inherent risk in bureaucratic management. As procedures become more rule driven, the amount of management grows, until administration eventually take sup more money than actual services.

Then there is eligibility. As the VA is free, but based on eligibility, the government must spend much time and effort on determining who can receive services, and which ones. In addition, as the service is "free", there is a tendency for consumers to use as much as they can, rather than economizing as a cost-based plan would, and, as a result, the government tends to ration, either explicitly, or, more often, implicitly, by imposing long waits, complex requirements before getting service, and other headaches intended to reduce demand. Not only does this cost money to manage, but it also makes service seem even worse than it is.

And finally, the bureaucratic atmosphere tends to discourage those with the best skills and with the greatest ambitions*. In order to maintain an adequately skilled staff they tend to have to offer more in the way of pay or benefits, or else lower their expectations for a given level of pay. In either case, this tends to raise costs, either in higher pay, or in using other employees to make up for the shortcomings of the dissatisfied staff, which results in the same money going even less far.

But, perhaps an even better example is social services. Having been a welfare eligibility worker, I saw the way ion which the government, with its obsessively rule driven system, managed to spend a fortune to ensure that those who were supposed to get aid did not get it. For example, to receive medical aid a doctor had to certify that an individual could not work for one year, otherwise the person was not "disabled". There were a number of shady doctors who would gleefully write such forms for a fee, and so those who were lifetime welfare recipients, as well as the homeless who share information at the community center, could always get such certification. On the other hand, an 18 year old girl in my caseload, who had suffered bone cancer and hand a bone transplant could not get her more scrupulous doctor to say she could not work for more than six months. Similarly, a woman who had had a lung removed from cancer could not get aid, as she drove a school bus, despite great physical pain, as, by her description, "if I don't work, I get evicted and starve."

And that is the way in which welfare tends to produce incredibly inefficient results at great cost. Being driven by complex, but understandable rules, those who have an interest in playing the game, trying to maximize their benefits and keep them as long as possible, in other words, those we would prefer not get benefits, get the most benefits for the longest, while those unfamiliar with the system, the temporarily incapacitated or broke for whom the system was supposedly designed, tend to fail to qualify, or else get minimal benefits.

Just one example. Food stamps had many rules about counting assets. One was the value of one's car. I think this rule changed since I worked in social services, but at one time, one could not have a car worth more than a set amount. As a result, every intermittent construction worker, who would work all during the warm months, then become "disabled" by soft tissue injury during the cold months, would own a car worth just under the food stamp limit**. And the same was true of many others who would consistently, or intermittently, receive food stamps. On the other hand, I had cases where, for example, real carpenters would suffer injuries, exhaust their savings, and look for assistance. Many owned very pricey F150's, F250's and larger, which left them disqualified. As they expected to go back to work when they recovered, they were not about to sell off their trucks, and so, despite their very real need, they could not qualify for food stamps. (On the other hand, many construction workers in my caseload had brothers or cousins who owned two trucks, one of which my client would "use". Yet another interesting dodge known to the lifetime welfare recipient, but not to those whose need was short lived.)

This list could go on, but as I said, this is just a start and I plan to look into it in detail later. For now, let me just say that while I argue often the government spends far too much that does not mean that I think the beneficiaries of such programs always receive too much. In some cases, yes, but in many others the money either gets misdirected, or else evaporates in the many layers of bureaucracy. So, saying the government is too free with money does not mean the same thing as saying the beneficiaries get too much.


* No, I do not deny some good doctors work in the VA. Some good people work in every government office. Still, a bureaucratic environment tends to discourage most of the best and brightest, as proved by England's "brain drain", or, more generally, the flight of many of the best out of any regulated industry. There may be a handful dedicated to their jobs, but we cannot rely on that. When we bureaucratize, we have to expect a loss of quality. (For the record, I have worked as a computer programmer for the government, and for the military, as well as for private firms. I also have to say I found the bureaucracy in the government and military difficult to endure. I was too used to having a large degree of freedom and being rewarded for initiative from my earliest jobs for a large banking firm, and so the very restrictive, rules driven atmosphere, where seemingly senseless rules governed almost everything I did, was very difficult to endure. And I am not alone in this, I know many who said they left government for that precise reason.)

** I am sorry if this description sounds cynical, but there were certain archetypes we came to expect. The intermittent construction worker was one. The woman who did not know where her child's father was, but who repeatedly had more children with him was another. (A subtype of this was the woman who did not know where he was but ended up living next door to him.) So, if I sound cynical it is only because after a few years you come to see certain patterns in the cases that pass in front of you.



Another interesting way the government found to waste money was the eligibility for their pharmacy assistance program. To qualify, first you had to be denied for medical assistance. It sounds sensible, but if you think about it, it is remarkably inefficient. It would make sense, I suppose, if the same people managed both programs, but, as they did not, the result was as follows. Someone, knowing he earns too much for medical assistance, comes in to social services to intentionally be denied. He goes through the whole application, providing me with documents, both of us spending some time, and then is denied. He then applies for pharmacy assistance, which requires him to go through the same process again with another agency, providing all the same data, as well as my denial. In short, my denial was pointless. They could have just had the pharmacy assistance worker determine ineligibility. But as the law required the recipient not be eligible for federal money, and the health department was not allowed to make such a definitive determination, they could not look at charts and determine someone was ineligible, we had to repeat the same process twice, wasting hours of labor, in order to prove what everyone involved already knew.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/07/07.

Katrina and BP

NOTE: I was looking for a single specific article ("Katrina and BP"), when I noticed that, in a period of a few days in July 2010, I wrote a large number of my favorite articles. Not just the four I am reproducing here, but also "Problematic Arguments", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government" and "What is Fair? or, How Game Theory Leads Us Astray", which I already reproduced, and a few lesser essays as well. I was so impressed by the quality of what I wrote in those few days (and a bit surprised that I wrote all of those essays in such a short period), that I decided to reprint them in my new blog. 

I am sure, seeing this headline, some are expecting an essay contrasting the media's pillorying of Bush with the pass they have handed to Obama in their respective Gulf crises. But that is an essay that has been written more times than I care to count, and one that really cannot bear much more fruit. We all know that Obama is treated with kid gloves and that the press favors the left, is there much new material to be gained by rehashing those topics?

No, what I want to examine is, first, a topic I have explored previously ("Continuing Foolishness", "Zero Tolerance and Big Government"), the double standard of the right in this matter, and, more significantly, the damage that double standard does to the right. Most specifically, the way it sets us up for future losses to the left.

Before I begin, let me say that I am skeptical about government regulation, especially to ensure safety. As my posts "Worker Safety", "Fairness and the Free Market", "Greed Versus Evil", "In Praise of Contracts" and others show, I am convinced that, absent massive government intervention into the market, employers have a selfish interest in maintaining safety, and will do so in a more cost effective and reasonable manner than the government. In fact, as should be obvious from "Gun Control, The FDA and Regulating the Law Abiding", "Professional Education", "Licensing", "Business Licensing and Regulation", "Bad Economics Part 12", "Real Life and Regulation" and "Insider Trading", I am skeptical that any government regulation produces the benefits claimed, or any benefits at all. It seems to me that the end result of most regulation is not protection of consumer interests, or public safety, but economic stagnation and entrenched elites who enjoy unfair advantages in the market. ("Anti-Business Businesses", "Transparency, Corruption and Reform", "The Difference Between Public and Private, Or, The Real Monopolies and Cartels", "Bureaucratic Management", "The Bureaucratic Mind", "Bureaucracy Revisited", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing")

But one does not need to agree with my position on regulation to accept my remaining arguments in this post. Similarly, one does not need  to accept my minimalist view of government. ( "My Vision of Government", "My Vision of Government Part II", "Man's Nature and Government", "Prelude", "An Analogy") While I think that the government's role, on the federal, state and local levels, is a very restricted one, my argument here does not rely upon that belief. I will take a moment to explain my position later, describing what I believe should have been the government response to the BP spill, but I will also provide several alternate arguments, based on more expansive views of the role of government. 

In short, though this argument is made much more obvious, and far easier to justify, by adopting my beliefs on the role of government and the pointlessness of regulation, neither belief is necessary. One need only believe in small government with limited power1, possibly with a more federalist structure ("Why I Am Not A Libertarian", "The Benefits of Federalism") for the argument to be found valid. So, although from time to time I will start an argument based upon my extremely minimal government position, please bear with me, as most such arguments will be followed by an alternative take, based on less extreme principles.

Having said all that, let us proceed with the first part of our argument, the flip side of the media's double standard in handling Gulf coast crises, the right's dual standards.

When Katrina struck, the media almost immediately began criticizing the Bush administration. Overlooking the fact that the federal government cannot become involved until it is asked by the states, the press acted as if Bush had somehow delayed action and made the crisis worse. On the other hand, the right, quite properly, argued that the state and city should have done more, and if they needed federal help, needed to call for it earlier. And, quite surprisingly, some on the right even mentioned that the first responsibility rested on the individuals themselves, and that those who sat and waited without even trying to help themselves were much more to blame than Bush.

Cut to the BP crisis and the roles are almost entirely reversed. The left is, rightly, arguing BP has the first responsibility for cleanup. They may be arguing the wrong approach, relying mainly on coercive federal action against BP, but they are right as to where the responsibility lies. On the other hand, the right is jumping into the "Great Job, Brownie" mode and blaming the Obama administration for doing too little2. There is some valid grounds for complaint in how the Obama administration handled things, specifically their refusal to lift regulations barring foreign assistance, but as most of the criticism has focused on their lack of "action", I think it is fair to argue the right is essentially arguing the federal government was not intrusive enough.

A similar double standard also exists in the second criticism leveled by some on the right, that BP got waivers for "common sense" safety precautions. Just 2 or 3 years ago, when oil was in short supply, the right was (rightly) denouncing such bureaucracy as a needless intrusion into the productive process, and red tape which should be eliminated to allow us to import less oil. However, now that Obama is in the cross hairs, such regulations have become essential.  (See "Worker Safety" for my argument on this topic.) Whether or not you think the government needs to regulate safety, the fact remains the right has made themselves look foolish by, within a few years, going from calling the same regulations "red tape" and "common sense safety regulations." Whatever your beliefs, that does not look good.

Rather than go through each topic in detail, let me just point out the harm the right is doing to themselves by their arguments. We can then look at the right way to handle such questions in the future, and what doing it wrong entails.

First, let us look at the safety question. It has long been the left's position that businessmen are evil, heartless monsters who would kill every last employee to make a buck. Basically, the caricature you see in every Hollywood movie. The right, outside of a few paleo-cons and related populists ("Misplaced Blame and A Power Play", "Beware Populist Deception") have argued that businessmen are just like the rest of us, interested in bringing goods to market and no more inclined to do harm than anyone else. But now, thanks to our approach to this question, we have effectively argued that BP is that caricature, and that they happily ignored their own interests, didn't care about the safety of their investment, and basically took unreasonable risks because... um.. they like dumping oil? They are evil friends of Obama?

Whatever the reason, it belongs on the left, not the right. Businesses do not grow big by taking unreasonable risks, and, no matter how much we want to impugn Obama and his administration, calling BP evil businessmen does more to solidify the left's hold on America than it does to protect freedom.

The same goes or the charges that Obama did too little. In my mind, this sort of crisis may not even be a proper area for government involvement, being better handled by individual suits for damages against the offender, driving the company to make cleanup a priority. However, that is arguable, and I could see a case for this problem being of a nature requiring collective action which is easier through government3. But even if we adopt such a position, it seems to me the principle we applied in Katrina applies here as well, that the localities, and the states should be the first to respond. That the problem has occurred so far out in the Gulf does not change the fact that the states are the first responders in crises, the federal response should come only on the invitation of the states4.

By suddenly changing our position, by effectively arguing the federal government should arrogate all power to itself, should intervene in any emergency, whether invited or not, we are arguing in favor of an extremely large and powerful government, taking a position contrary to everything we have claimed to believer for the past 30 years or more5. As I said in "Continuing Foolishness", we are essentially giving up everything we have believed for the past several decades to score some political points against Obama. 

It would be easy to go on, but it would likely become quite redundant. After all, the pattern should be obvious.

It is not hard to understand, either. Obama has brought out strong emotions among conservatives. If you want evidence, look at the enthusiasm which greeted the "birther" claims, even among those not normally inclined to support such conspiracy theories. ("Can Hawaiians Travel Overseas?", "Maybe Obama Was Born in Gulf Breeze, Florida") Partly because of his far left beliefs, partly because of his content free campaign, partly because of the feeling that the McCain nomination left us with no alternative, and probably partly for a hundred more reasons, conservatives feel strongly about Obama, and find the man hard to stomach. 

But that is not the only reason. As I wrote before about the "Angry Right" ("A Quick Thought Inspired By Gibbon", "Excessive Claims", "In Defense of Civil Debate", "The Angry Right and Conservatives", "Rethinking My Earlier Position", "Our Rude Behavior", "Political Polarization and Divisive Politics"), conservatives are also unhappy with society in general. The left's control of media ("The Death of Impartial Media",  "The Impossibility of Unbiased Reporting", "Media Double Standards and a Proposed Solution","Checking In With the Professionals", "The Rebirth of Skepticism") and education ("The State Versus Universities", "Subsidies and Censorship", "Patronage Versus Choice", "Asking the Wrong Question", "My Censorship Is Your Discretion", "Publish Or Perish", "Funding and the Corruption of Science", "Reforming Education", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education") mean that the left can hide a hundred mistakes, while a minor gaffe on the right becomes a major scandal. In addition, thanks to the massive influence the left wields over popular culture6, not only is the right scrutinized in a way the left never is, but the middle of the road moderates have an impression of the right which is unfair and damaging. And all these feelings of ostracism, the need to be ten times better than our opponents, the efforts taken to treat our rivals with kid gloves, and all the rest, that inevitably brings about extreme emotions, making our normal feelings more emphatic, amplifying our beliefs. ("All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events")

And that is why we largely end up making arguments against Obama that could be damaging to our cause. Thanks to our anger, we fail to consider what we are saying, instead latching on to any possible weapon to take down our hated foe.

But that is the wrong approach. Obama will not be here forever, and though he may be harmful, there is something far worse. And that worse outcome is for us to fight him by giving victory to the next several decades of leftists thought. What good does it do to beat Obama only to surrender the government to even more radical leftists for the next two decades? We cannot win if we surrender our beliefs, and we gain nothing if to take down Obama we concede points to the left that undermine our positions.

What we must do is simple. We can point out mistakes, point out errors, and certainly point out corruption, but we must do so without surrendering our beliefs. For example, rather than arguing Obama broke necessary regulations, why not argue he broke regulations he himself claims to support? Rather than proclaiming our support for regulation and big government, why don't we instead paint him as hypocritical in his supposed support for regulations "reining in business", while at the same time breaking any and all of them for favored firms? That would not only maintain our principles intact, but I think it would be a much more effective argument as well.


1. I have argued in the past ("Inescapable Logic", "Smaller Government , Fair Weather Friends and Special Cases", "Negative and Positive Rights", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Best of the Web gets It Very, Very Wrong", "Free Speech, Absolute Rights and the Absurdity of "Balancing Tests"") that believing in small, limited government while making exceptions for "sensible regulation" ("Et Tu, Town Hall?", "Who Is Safer?") is actually self-defeating, as the contradictory beliefs will have to eventually resolve themselves in favor of one or the other, which almost always end up favoring intrusive government. However, for purposes of this essay, I am looking only at short term effects, and in that case accepting some small regulation, though even that favors the arguments for big government, is closer to true small government advocacy than the much more expansive liberal philosophy. See also "You Gotta Have Faith" and  "Government Quackery".

2. Not that the Obama administration did not make mistakes. In fact, some of their actions made things more difficult. However, those have not been the primary emphasis, the emphasis has been on Obama doing "too little". For a rather mixed bag of complaints, some valid some less so, see this article. The administration's obstruction of foreign help and legitimate efforts are clearly troubling, the complaints that they did too little, or did not impose enough regulations, are much less so.

3. I discussed before my ambivalence about using government to enact collective solutions, such as emergency response. I still believe some sort of non-governmental voluntary organization is a much better solution. (Compare volunteer fire departments, at least the ones still truly independent from the state, with the politicized professional departments.) But as the point is arguable, and not one I care to debate now, for the moment I will concede the possibility of using government.

4. I have always lamented the 1934 changes which allowed the FBI primary jurisdiction in so many types of cases. Prior to that the states, rightly, had to invite in the federal police. Of course, ideally, I would eliminate any federal interest in criminal law, but if we must have it, it should be invitational, the federal government should not have the primary role in any criminal issue. (Excepting perhaps crimes on military bases and federal lands. And, so long as we embrace the lunacy of managed currency, counterfeiting.)
5. Clearly there were individuals calling for small government since the time of Jefferson, but, as a significant segment of a political party, following the 1890's change of the Democrats, neither party had a small government faction until the Reagan revolution of 1980/1981. ("A Passing Thought", "The Political Spectrum", "The Best Historical Example", "Rethinking the Scopes Trial") There was the Goldwater faction of the Republicans for about 15 to 20 years preceding that, but their influence on a national, rather than local., scale was short lived, disappearing with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Non Sequitur Allegations"), though they did enjoy something of a resurgence with Reagan's rise, perhaps as early as 1975 or 1976. On the other hand, the Reagan movement lasted, as an effective political force, only through about 1996, when the Contract with America fell apart. And, at present, though there are a number of small government conservatives, and even a number of ostensibly small government Republican candidates, in practice we have returned to the "echo chamber" of the 1960's and 1970's, with both parties espousing intrusive government, differing only on what should be regulated and to what degree. ("Clinton and Bush Killed the Center")

6. To be entirely accurate, this is a two way street, as our youth-obsessed, essentially amoral popular culture itself makes the beliefs of the left more appealing to those who chase cultural trends. Not that the recognition of this fact makes the right feel any better. If anything, it makes them even more estranged to discover that both politics and culture stand against them. See "Deadly Cynicism", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "Culture and Government", "In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "Our Complete Lack of Creativity", "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "The Fascination with Change", "Trophy Spouses" and "Cranky Old Man?".


It may be useful to read several other posts in addition to this one. For example, on conceding points to a rival even while apparently opposing him, see "Defending Freedom?", "Impractical Pragmatists", "You Lose When You Think You Win", "Selling Yourself Cheap", "The FairTax's Liberal Assumptions", "Doing Something", ""Doing Something" Revisited", "What We Deserve",  "Don't Blame the Politicians", "Who Is To Blame?", "What is Wrong with Us", "The Single Greatest Weakness", "The Difficulty of Principle" and "Damn the Torpedoes!". However, one should also read "Cigarettes, Sudan and Abortion", as it makes an important distinction between valid and invalid compromise. It may also be helpful to read "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Moral For Me, But Not For Thee" and "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface". 

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/07/07.