The Impossibility of Big Government You Can Trust


Let’s start off Tuesday with a piece I’ve been meaning to highlight for a week, touching on political philosophy.  On National Review Online, Veronique de Rugy mentions some reservations that high-profile progressive Larry Summers has expressed about relying on so much government.  Witnessing small-scale infrastructure-related incompetence, Summers muses:

I’m a progressive, but it seems plausible to wonder if  government can build a nation abroad, fight social decay, run schools, mandate the design of cars, run health insurance exchanges, or set proper sexual harassment policies on college campuses, if it can’t even fix a 232-foot bridge competently.

Ultimately, Summers winds up calling for the people to hold government accountable, to which de Rugy responds:

… holding government officials accountable isn’t as easy as it sounds. How do you do that? The government spends $4 trillion a year. How do we monitor every government program out there and complain about what’s not working? By writing letters to your representative? How many regular people without deep pockets and a promise to finance a future campaign does it take to catch the attention of one’s representative? Do we hold them accountable by voting our representatives out of office if they don’t do anything about a given problem? The chances are that the next guy won’t be able to do any better.

I’m afraid de Rugy understates the problem.  She emphasizes that it’s not just a matter of size, but also a matter of access and incentives; however, she stops short on the implications.  To hold the employees of a Dept. of Transportation — or any other agency — accountable, the people ultimately have to hold elected officials accountable or work through budget processes.  And at every layer there are distractions and diversions galore.

Maybe you’re upset with your state representative for a vote approving tolls, but try to hold him accountable for that, and people who care more about other things he does for political reasons (e.g., handouts to labor unions) will fight back.  Approach the problem from the budgetary angle, and government officials will pick cuts that cause pain to teach voters a lesson.  Find somebody crazy enough to campaign for public office as a real reformer, and the entire massive machinery of special interests who benefit from the tax needle in the public’s arm and the regulatory hamster wheel in which the public must run will attack the reformer in the most nasty ways — from IRS targeting to physical violence at political events to petty, often-anonymous defamatory rumors at the most local level.

In all of this, the reformer isn’t only made a villain, he or she is set up as the scapegoat if any of big-government’s hostages should die.  In the bizarre and malicious construct of modern progressive government, you can’t reform outrageous labor rules because impoverished disabled minority children will starve.  That’s the way progressives have set government up because it’s the only way for progressives to build their influence.

The only way to make a free, representative society work is to separate public activities so that a small government responsible for roads is not also the vessel through which we take care of our neighbors.  When we disagree about where that line should be drawn, the decisions must be made at the most local level possible.  In other words, we need smaller, more-widely dispersed government… exactly the opposite of what progressives advocate.