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Chapter 22: Big Government: inefficient & dangerous

“I don’t make jokes…I just watch the government and report the facts.” —American cowboy and humorist Will Rogers

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” —American humorist P. J. O’Rourke

“Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.” —American actor and U.S. President Ronald Reagan

What’s wrong with Big Government

  • There is no such thing as a free government service. There’s no free lunch, free health care, or free college. Government does not create wealth; individuals do. Governments can only take money from some people and redistribute it to others—and they do an incredibly inefficient job because their ever-expanding bureaucracies take so much off the top.
  • More government means less freedom. America became great because it limited the roles of the federal government, protected individual liberty, and allowed citizens to make their own decisions. We have drifted a long way from those principles. Government is now involved in every facet of our lives. The more powerful and all-encompassing the federal government becomes, the less room there is for the individual initiative and responsibility that made America great.
  • Governments are inefficient. Because they have no need to compete, governments generally don’t do anything very well. Unlike families and businesses, governments don’t have to make good decisions to survive. With the power to tax and impose regulations, they don’t have to compete. Without competition, there is little or no pressure to do things better or more efficiently. Here’s a challenge for you: try to name even one service or product that the government does a better job providing than the free market.
  • Government services kill off potential jobs. When government provides a service or product, it kills businesses, eliminates jobs, stifles competition, and reduces tax revenues—not to mention saddling taxpayers with the higher costs of government bloat, bureaucratic waste, and political corruption.
  • Government keeps growing. Government agencies inevitably become too large and too bureaucratic. Most politicians and bureaucrats believe government is the answer to every problem. That’s perfectly natural since it is their chosen field. But government gets even bigger every time somebody demands that politicians “do something” about anything—regardless of whether government can do that something competently or efficiently.
  • The bigger it gets, the worse it is. As institutions become bigger and more powerful, the less likely they are to serve the public interest. This is true of governments, businesses, and special interest groups such as labor unions. Citizens are particularly at risk when Big Government, Big Business, and other big special interest groups cut deals with one another.
  • Governments always try to do too much. Spoiled by generations of government subsidies, beneficiaries always want more. Governments are far too political, with all sorts of special interest groups seeking special favors at the expense of others. Since politicians have no discipline, they agree to take on anything and everything that any campaign contributor requests, regardless of how inappropriate the request is or how many other layers of government are already involved. They overpromise, which is turn causes government to overcommit and underperform.
  • Government programs never die. No matter how badly a government program performs, it is never eliminated. In fact, the tendency is to spend even more taxpayer money to make the program “work better.” This is the kind of thinking that only bureaucrats and politicians can afford, and they can afford it only because they are spending other people’s (taxpayers) money.
  • Government employees seldom get fired. Government bureaucrats have created work rules that make it impractical to motivate, discipline, or fire incompetent government employees.
  • Governments attract corruption. Power corrupts. Any system that empowers officials to spend other people’s money—and allows them to grant favors to themselves and their supporters with that money—is prime breeding territory for corruption. Bigger government logically means bigger temptation for fraud and potential abuse of power by politicians, bureaucrats, government labor unions, and police agencies.
  • Governments become abusive. Governments have all the same faults as other big bureaucracies, plus many more. They are especially dangerous because they carry the force of law and are often run by self-righteous ideologues and self-aggrandizing egomaniacs. Self-serving politicians can too easily abuse and misuse their influence.
  • The dangers of selective enforcement. Politicians and government bureaucrats—federal, state, and local—create new rules for every possible situation and to cover every single possibility. They are drowning this nation in so many rules that no citizen can possibly know all of them. This means that each of us might unknowingly be in violation of some obscure government regulation. This in turn means that the government could selectively prosecute any citizen who dares to question the government’s authority.
  • Government isn’t the solution. Misguided citizens often demand a government solution for every problem. As their numbers grow, this fundamental error is bringing down the nation. In fact, government is the cause of many of our problems. Even well-intentioned government programs are often counterproductive because politicians and bureaucrats can’t anticipate the unintended consequences of their actions.
  • Government caused the financial crisis. After political meddling, government guarantees, and Wall Street greed caused the artificial housing boom and eventual bust, the same politicians who caused the problem blamed everybody except themselves. (See more about this in “Big Business” and “Economics.”)

How to fix Big Government

  • Reign in the political class. Take away the benefits and financial rewards that politicians have bestowed upon themselves at the public’s expense. Limit their power. Limit their ability to reward their cronies. Put the sacrifice and service back into “public service.” (See more about this proposal in the chapters “Career Politicians” and “Congressional Reform.”)
  • Regulatory reform. As discussed in the chapter titled “Individual Responsibility,” excessive government regulation increases consumer costs, limits choices, and creates new opportunities for influence-peddling and outright fraud by politicians and bureaucrats.
  • At-will employment for government employees. The complex civil service rules that make it difficult to motivate, discipline, or fire incompetent employees should be replaced by at-will employment (similar to what exists in the private sector). That way, competence would become the best way to gain job security.
  • Limited government. Recognize how ineffective and inefficient most governments are and carefully define and limit the role of each layer of government. Limit the federal government’s responsibilities to a few well-defined roles, such as national defense, immigration, foreign policy, protection of individual liberties, and the assurance of equal protection under the law. Leave everything else to the state or local governments—or to the people themselves. Hold the federal government accountable for doing a few things well, instead of doing everything poorly.
  • Keep it small and local. Always opt for decision making to be made at the lowest or smallest practical level—where individual opinions can be heard, local knowledge is available, bureaucracy can be kept to a minimum, and people are best equipped to recognize political nonsense. Depending on the issue, town solutions are usually more efficient and effective than county solutions, county solutions are preferable to state solutions, and state solutions are preferable to federal solutions.
  • Focus on results. Most government programs are started with good intentions.  Many of them get lousy results, but are almost never eliminated. Instead, politicians and bureaucrats seek to “improve” existing programs by throwing more taxpayer money at them.  We should get rid of programs that don’t provide results that justify their costs.
  • Rein in federal government overreach. Congress has used the “commerce clause” of the Constitution—especially the reference to commerce between the states—to expand the federal government’s role far beyond what the nation’s founders intended. This has created new opportunities for influence peddling and outright fraud by politicians and bureaucrats. With enough pressure from citizens, Congress could be forced to control itself. If that fails, citizen-driven constitutional amendments may be necessary, as described in the “Take Back Congress” chapter. One of them could be worded something like this: “The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution (‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.’) is reaffirmed, and Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the US Constitution ([The Congress shall have Power] ‘To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes) is amended to delete these words: ‘and among the several States.’”
  • Get the government out of the insurance business. Whenever the government “guarantees” or “insures” anything, it’s almost always because no sane person or business will take the risk. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, contributed to our housing bubble and eventual bust and should be eliminated. Flood insurance is another great example: it encourages people (usually rich people) to build where they shouldn’t—with the hapless taxpayer covering the predictable losses. Only the government could be this stupid—mainly because the politicians and bureaucrats who make these decisions are spending other people’s (taxpayers) money.
  • Push it down. The same kind of discipline should be used at other government levels as well. Just because an outcome is desirable doesn’t mean that government is the best way to achieve it. If there is a role for government, let it fall to the lowest practical level of government. The smallest government units are closest to the needs of the people and most easily held accountable for results.
  • Outsource it. Even when governments have a legitimate role, outsourcing and decentralizing give free markets and competition a chance. Competitive bidding is a great way to make sure the need will be provided as efficiently and effectively as possible. It is important, however, that politicians not be allowed to corrupt the bidding process with political payoffs, crony capitalism, favoritism, and social engineering.
  • Government contract reform. Government bids should be subject to free market competition without union-supported politicians saddling taxpayers with the higher cost of government-mandated union wages. (See the “Big Labor” chapter for more about this issue.)

“The best way to understand this whole issue is to look at what the government does: it takes money from some people, keeps a bunch of it, and gives the rest to other people.” —American author and columnist Dave Barry

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have.” —Third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson

“Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” —French economist and politician Frederic Bastiat

“Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, of course, lays out the delegated, enumerated, and therefore limited powers of Congress. Only through a deliberate misreading of the general welfare and commerce clauses of the Constitution has the federal government been allowed to overreach its authority and extend its tendrils into every corner of civil society.” —Edward H. Crane, founder of the Cato Institute

“The government is like a baby’s alimentary canal: a happy appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other.” —Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan

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  3. Good points, Hopsah, but keep in mind that when the government guarantees a loan or creates an insurance program, it’s usually because nobody else is willing to do so. That’s why the taxpayers (and future generations) keep getting hammered by lousy “investments” pushed by misguided and irresponsible politicians.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Chapter 22: Big Government: What’s wrong & how to fix it « Fixing America's Broken Politics
  2. Action Plan to Save America « Fixing America's Broken Politics
  3. Book chapters, with live links « Fixing America's Broken Politics
  4. Federal “investments”? | Fixing America's Broken Politics
  5. Best swamp-draining idea of the year: Move some federal agencies out of D.C. | Fixing America's Broken Politics

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