Saturday, March 31, 2012

I Want Big Government

[For anyone who doesn't know, I'm from the United States of America and talking about my own government.]

As someone who's only foray into opinion columns was trying to make a historical argument for higher taxes on the rich, perhaps this comes as no surprise. But there I was mostly talking about debt and investing. Here I want to talk about big government in itself.

I hear a lot of arguments against it, I don't hear nearly enough for it.  In fact, not only do we not really hear arguments for it, we don't even here people simply saying, "I want that."  Well, I want that.

Consider a very simple example. Go down to the BMV/DMV/[whatever your local version is called]. Look at the wait time. You know the reason for that? The government is too damn small. If we hired more workers then the wait time would be smaller. Hire enough workers and there would be hardly any wait time at all. If we make government bigger, dealing with government will suck significantly less.

The same could be said of the SSA or HHS or pretty much any government agency (state or federal) you can think of. Do you like waiting in line? Unless you do, the answer is a bigger government. More workers to help you out means less time spent waiting for one to become available.

Not having to wait in line for hours on end is something I'd like to think that we can all get behind, and the solution is both simple and obvious: bigger government. Each of those workers is the government. Every time one is hired that makes the government bigger. Some people don't like that. They want the government to be smaller which means that we all have to wait in longer lines whenever it should happened that we need to deal with any part of the government.

That's a rather simple example that won't exactly change the world (although hiring more people would make the employment picture better for everyone) but it's illustrative. When it comes to the number of employees available to help the people waiting in line, smaller government makes things worse, bigger government makes things better. The idea that bigger is always worse is clearly false.

What about roads? After the stimulus there was more road construction than I ever saw before in my life, but there are so many other crappy roads and they still stuck and now the stimulus is over. Right now things are made even worse than normal because the congress refuses to pass a transportation bill which means that states don't know whether the money to finish a project will be there when they need it, so they're limiting themselves to small projects. But even if things were normal, we still wouldn't be taking the roads seriously. Nor the bridges roads traverse.

There are 143,889 deficient bridges around today. (Most are in use.) Know why? The government is too damned small.

In fairness, that number is an improvement. When I was originally made aware of this the number was 149,647. Hopefully the change was a result of fixing things rather than standing by while they collapsed. Let's assume it is. That means that more than three, almost four, percent of the problem has been solved. A little over 96% remains. Or, in other words, we need a government capable of doing 25 times that much work. Right now we don't even have a government capable of doing the 3% again since that progress was made under special circumstances that have since ended. Like I said, the government is too damn small.

I want a government that can fix this.

I want a government that is so vast that when I need to deal with it I don't have to sacrifice my day to waiting in line.

I want a government that is so vast that the roads are well paved.

I want a government so vast that the bridges are not deficient.

I want a government so vast that water mains are kept in good repair.

I want a government so vast that sewers and storm drains are too.

I want a government so vast that medicine and supplements are tested to make sure they're not going to kill me.

I want a government so vast that it can regulate the banks and make sure that they never pull that shit again.

I want a government so vast that it can do the same thing to other industries.

I want a government so vast that it can catch tax cheats.

I want a government so vast that it can make sure that in this country none go hungry.

I want a government so vast that it can make it so anyone who wants to go to college or university can do so without ending up in a mountain of debt.

I want a government so vast that it can ensure that none are unable to get healthcare.

I want a government so vast that it can jumpstart work on renewable domestic energy sources so that we're energy independent.

I want a government so vast that it can create the best education system on earth.

I want a government so vast that it can make it so our power grid does not suck.

I want a government so vast that dams are inspected.

I want a government so vast that it can stop businesses from pushing around people, instead of itself being pushed around by businesses.

I want a government so vast that it can do its fucking job.

I want big government.


Now two things need to be said, the first is that I do believe there are limits to what the scope of government should be. When government tells consenting adults what they can do in their bedroom, that's going too far. When the government decides that it is more qualified than women and their doctors to say what happens to those women's vaginas, that goes too far. When the government spies without warrants, that goes too far. When the government imprisons people without trial, that goes too far.  There are definitely limits.  Many more than I just listed.

But the reason those things are problems is not because they are examples of big government, but rather because they are examples of bad government. Bad government is, by definition, bad regardless of whether it is big or small. Size has nothing to do with it.

The other thing is that what I'm talking about is expensive. In many of those cases it requires a big government just because it requires more people to be in government (for example, more dam inspectors) but in all of those cases it's big government in that it requires a government that spends the money to do that.

People will say If a certain kind of person were to actually read this they would say that this is all tax and spend liberalism.

It definitely would be taxing and spending. That's what government is. That's how it works. A government spends so that shit gets done. A government taxes so that the shit that gets done gets paid for. If you don't spend, nothing good happens. If you don't tax, you go into debt.

Good government involves taxing and spending. If it doesn't spend then it doesn't do its job since doing things costs money. If it doesn't tax then it gets deeper and deeper in debt. Tax and spend isn't an insult, it's an accurate description of how government works. It's like calling a dolphin a “swim and breathe” animal and expecting it to be insulted. No. That's how dolphins work. If they don't swim they don't accomplish much of anything and if they don't breathe they're not going to last very long.

I might have more sympathy if the people who were against “tax and spend” offered an alternative beyond “just spend” because spending without taxing in kind really isn't sustainable. If the Reagan years didn't teach them that, the Bush years should have. The debt incurred was immense.


  1. First time reader here, I popped over from Slacktivist's blogroll (in other words, a random surfer) but this is absolutely spot on.

    -- rebelsquirrel@twitter

    1. Thanks.

      If this is your first time here then you should be warned, most of what I do is write short pieces of fiction. Most of it based on existing things. Sort of the opposite of fan fiction. Bad fiction, rewritten.

      I started with writing variations on Left Behind. At the moment most of it is Twilight based.

      Anyway, things like this are the exception rather than the rule. Not that I don't want you to read (I do), but if you're thinking of sticking around for a while I'd like to you know what you're likely to encounter.

    2. No worries :-)

      I tend to skip through lots of people's hobbies looking for the politics :-)

  2. Chris,

    I'm generally a libertarian. I agree government is good for some things - I don't see anyone else I'd trust to keep up roads, sewers, et cetera. (And as long as they're doing it, they might as well do it well.) But, the more things government does, the more chance it'll do something bad. For example, one reason it was totally awful at catching fugitive slaves back before 1850 was that it was so small there weren't federal agents in each town to look for them. (In 1850, the slaveowners pushed through a new law forcing government to expand and hire lots of new people associated with slavecatching.)

    Of course, this isn't an actual argument against any specific thing. I could give one if you want, but I'm just pointing out that there is this danger.

    1. If you're saying that you'd prefer the government to be incompetent rather than competent when what it is doing is actively evil, I'd certainly agree with that. But even more so I would prefer for it not to be doing actively evil things.

      If the government is being evil* then focusing on the efficacy with which it is evil would seem to miss the larger point that it shouldn't be evil in the first place.

      Or, to use your example, if abolitionists had been pissed off that the slave catching operation was too large instead of the fact that slavery shouldn't exist then I think history would have played out a lot worse. The problem wasn't the size of the government catching fugitive slaves, the problem was that people were being kept as slaves.


      *And as an organization staffed entirely by human beings, it does have a tendency to do evil things. Which is a reason that there needs to be a lot more transparency and accountability. Government is far from the worst offender on the counts of transparency and accountability, but that's really not an excuse.

    2. Actually, it generally wasn't federal agents catching slaves(because there really weren't many at the time). The fugitive slave acts were supposed to force local police forces to help round up escaped slaves in all states; several areas tried to sidestep these requirements. I think the best example was one area(Chicago I think) that told their constabulary that they would not be paid for time spent tracking down escaped slaves; the obvious result was the local police did as little work as possible that they weren't paid for. This is also a very good example of the hypocrisy of the "State's Rights" claims of the time; states should have more power to decide things locally until I no longer agree with their decisions.

      Also, government is not some monolithic evil entity out there. It does what voters tell it to do. You don't want your government to be evil? Tell your elected representatives that!

      Oh, and the positive side of government bureaucracy:
      "The USPS appears to have some collective sense of humor, and might in fact here be displaying the rudiments of organic bureaucratic intelligence."

    3. I guess I was vague there - I was talking about the federal magistrates appointed to judge the cases (and paid, in part, based on how many slaves they sent back - but that's another problem.) Yes, a non-evil government would be a good thing. But looking at how it's behaved, I think it'd be hard to ensure we have one.

    4. Yes, a non-evil government would be a good thing. But looking at how it's behaved, I think it'd be hard to ensure we have one.

      You could apply that standard to almost anything and get the same result. For example:

      Yes, a non-evil private sector would be a good thing. But looking at how it's behaved, I think it'd be hard to ensure we have one.

      The law you justly criticized was, according to you yourself, something that came out of private sector lobbying. It had its origins not in government, but in the opposite of government.

      So what would you have? You're down on government because it has, historically, been evil. I assume you're down on private industry because it has, historically, been even more evil (so it seems difficult to defend it from the criticisms you've directed at government.) What are you up on?

      What do you support? It's fine to look at the world and say, "Everyone's evil, it'd be hard to ensure things work," but that doesn't get us anywhere. What's your solution?

      You've heard mine: work to make the government more transparent and accountable. What's yours?

      You've divided the world into slave holders (the private sector) and those who listen to slaveholders (the public sector). That's all well and good, but given those options what do you recommend doing? Because, outside of a life of hermitage in which you never interact with another human being again, I'm not seeing a lot of options that don't involve working with something/someone that has behaved badly.

    5. Nominally-democratic governments as currently constituted are effectively just a force multiplier for whoever has the most money. Want laws to favour your company? "Contribute" more than the other guy. Want to be an honest politician? Tough, you won't get adopted by a party so you'll have to spend your own money, and the guy who spent more money usually gets elected anyway.

      In the UK the cost of getting elected isn't quite as high - in large part because of the severe restrictions on campaigning by television and radio - but both the major parties still manage frequently to run out of money and are just as much in hock to their big donors.

      A government like that is best neutered before it can do even more damage.

  3. I want big government, too. Of course, I'm also a pinko-commie-bleeding heart-liberal who works at a public library. I'm even in favor of taxes. They're the price we pay for civilization, and I _like_ civilization. (Oddly enough, so do most of the people who don't like taxes. I will never understand why they think it's okay for a private company to charge for their goods and services, but bad for the government to do the same. Boggles the mind.)