Saturday, May 31, 2008

Shaving Leviathan

Why is there so little progress toward creating a freer society?

The other day, I heard several politicians from both sides of the fetid Congressional aisle say they admired Senator Teddy Kennedy. I don't think it's accurate to say of one politician that he admires another. That emotion isn't open to someone like a politician, who lacks a conscience and therefore the ability to feel something so positive as admiration.

Something like it is possible; the sort of emotion that, say, one African dictator feels about a rival in the face of his opponent's more ferocious and successful cannibalism.

That feeling they certainly can experience. And probably do. Often.

Even that dubious honor isn't really deserved, though. After all, no politician has any positive qualities by means of which they earn any value. What politicians achieve — or, more accurately, get away with — is owing mostly to the flaws in the electorate.

For example, when the Feds make a total mess of recovery efforts in New Orleans, blocking the efforts of private entrepreneurs at every stage, no one holds them to account. Pols can make that mess chiefly because so few stand up and say, with full conviction: "stay away, you'll only make things worse."

Instead, far too many believe it's perfectly proper for the government to lead large-scale efforts after a disaster. As a result, many others have their hands out. But government handouts inevitably come with government control. He who has the gold makes the rules. And when they make the rules, they invariably make them in ways that do not favor solving any valid problem in a valuable way.

When pols pass a Farm Bill that totally ignores the sound principle that the government has no business interfering in agriculture, transportation, and food markets in the first place it's the electorate who is ultimately to blame. Most don't protest loudly enough, even when the President vetoes it. Their voices could have stopped the override. The people, apart from a few conservative bloggers, were largely silent.

Control-mongers in Washington (and elsewhere; state politicians are no better) contemplate a cap-and-trade system that will not reduce CO2 emissions appreciably (assuming, wrongly, that is even necessary). Response? Only a few columnists complain. There is no mass protest of citizens whose banners read "Hands off the energy markets!" or "Heavy-handed government is the problem, NOT the solution!" Even that small number of commentators who protest still refuse to go all the way to the proper solution and embrace free trade in energy products and services.

And, so, the overwhelming majority (don't) get the kind of government they (fail to) ask for. Because they stood idly by and said too little. Let a near-retarded radio commentator make an idiotic racist remark and he's fired within days. Let politicians on both sides of the aisle succeed in increasing their control over food and energy and most will get re-elected handily.

Now, there are some valid excuses for inadequate activity.

Most people are trying to lead lives, lives that don't involve yelling at power-hungry politicians all the time. But just as one might devote a proportional amount of attention to laying out sandbags to prevent a flood around the house, or cleaning up the basement afterward, some time and effort is mandatory in the name of self-interest. Otherwise, you simply get what we have by default.

The other, equally important reason most people do little is that they feel stymied. They complain and nothing changes. The way to get over that problem is to be consistent, then things do change faster and farther.

Don't, for example, complain about rising health care costs but support the Social Security system in principle. Advocate its radical reduction and eventual elimination. Don't complain the government takes so much money in taxes, then ask it to supply free health care. Above all, learn that governments can't solve problems outside their proper sphere — foreign and domestic protection from thugs and thieves, and the peaceful resolution of honest disputes over property.

Fiddling with the knobs of public control of your personal life, including trade with others, will not do. We need to take away the remote control from those who believe they have a right to tell others what to do with their time and money.

To mix a metaphor, the problem is that we are just shaving Leviathan when we need to start draining its lifeblood until it's too anemic to do much harm. Right now, it's the one holding the straight razor and it's going about happily slitting throats right and left.

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