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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Obama and the Public

Barack Obama says the people have a growing sense that “something is broken” in Washington. He attributes this to hyper-partisanship and a consequent lack of civility, and thinks public disillusionment can be reversed through better manners, bipartisanship, compromise, and cooperation. But to what end? Presumably greater government management of medical care, finance, education, and energy. In a skillful act of question-begging, he identifies this with “serving the people.”

Before you know if something is broken you need to know how it’s supposed to look or work when it’s intact. If you don’t know that, you also won’t know what “fixing” it means.

Some people who think government is broken mean it’s not doing nearly enough. Others mean that it’s doing far too much already. Those two sides won’t agree on what would constitute a “fix.”

But Obama has a third notion of “broken.” He takes it as given that government should do more. In his view, what’s broken is the mechanism that produces more government. If he can’t get the votes to do what he wants, then the system is malfunctioning. It never occurs to him that by some standards, successfully thwarting the growth of government shows that at least at that time and in that narrow respect the system worked. Broken is in the eye of the beholder.

For those in power (and their patrons and clients), compromise is the great good–but only if it runs in one direction. In the case of medical care, for example, it requires people who want less or even no government interference to accept more. The compromise lies in the fact that it won’t (initially) be all the intervention the staunchest interventionists want. Compromise never consists in the interventionists’ moving in a noninterventionist direction. That can’t be an accident.

The ruling party can get away with this because the official opposition is not really an opposition at all at the level of basic premises. It’s the party, after all, that delivered a huge, open-ended expansion of an already-broke Medicare, the Wall Street bailouts, outrageous spending increases, and frighteningly large budget deficits when it was in charge. It, like the current majority party, is cozy with Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and Big Finance, all of which are what they are today because of years of political privilege. So when the opposition suddenly objects to “socialized medicine” or fiscal irresponsibility, or when it cries that the “free market” is being violated, it has so little credibility that its intransigence is easily portrayed as petty partisanship. Who can truly say it isn’t? Politicians live to win elections.

This is sad because the rest of us get caught in the crossfire.

But let’s have no sympathy for the “good government” types who bemoan public cynicism. It is they who created unfulfillable expectations by touting the blessings of the omnipotent State. They have only themselves to blame. Yet they seem to have learned nothing. Rather, they plunge ahead, bringing to mind Bertolt Brecht’s line: “The people have lost the confidence of the government; the government has decided to dissolve the people, and to appoint another one.”

Broken or not, government at the moment is not inspiring confidence in the majority of people. That’s good news for those who look to government for neither inspiration nor solutions (to problems it itself has created). Thus there’s no more urgent task than to encourage the people in their political cynicism, emphasizing that what’s wrong with health care, finance, education, and energy won’t be fixed by electing the “right” person or party next time around but rather by removing the obstacles to bottom-up, decentralized solutions.

* * *

The year ends in a zero, which it means it’s time for the constitutionally authorized decennial census. As usual, government has something more in mind than simply counting heads, as Wendy McElroy makes perfectly clear.

No matter who rules, the national government gets bigger, more intrusive, more expensive, more disruptive–and more incompetent. Jim Powell has the grisly details.

The people in charge of “homeland security” are moving ahead with full-body-scan technology at the airports. Examiners will get the virtual strip shows, but will the machines make us safe? Becky Akers has the answer.

Haiti was devastated by an earthquake last winter. While the event itself was natural, the extent of the death and damage was the responsibility of human beings. T. Norman Van Cott discusses how deadly the lack of property rights can be.

Open any newspaper and you’re sure to find a story reporting on the state of the GDP. What is GDP really and does it tell us very much about anything? Warren Gibson goes behind the magic letters.

The premise of the leading approaches to health care “reform” is that everyone has a right to medical services. But everyone needs to realize, as Theodore Levy shows, that having a government-decreed right to something is not nearly the same as actually having access to the thing you supposedly have a right to.

There’s a tendency to think that control of land comes in two flavors: individual ownership of parcels and government ownership. However, Elinor Ostrom’s recent Nobel Prize-winning work reminds us that another form exists: common ownership without the State. Kevin Carson explores the theory and practice.

If government sets up perverse incentives for the banks by rewarding bad behavior, we can expect more bad behavior. The Obama administration has still not learned the lesson, so Bruce Yandle goes over it one more time.

Many years ago a slide rule had great value for those who needed it. Today the same slide rule has about zero value for such people (except perhaps as a collector’s item). What happened? Richard Fulmer relays an explanation from one who knows.

Laboring at their word processors, our columnists have produced this batch of goodies: Lawrence Reed says we’ll know when we’ve won. Thomas Szasz indicts psychiatry for helping people escape responsibility for their crimes. Stephen Davies sees spontaneous order in sports. John Stossel describes a case of crony capitalism. David Henderson finds freedom in an unfree world. And Joseph Stromberg, hearing a pundit claim that anti-populism made America great, retorts, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Our reviewers report on books covering FDR’s first hundred days, the relationship between freedom and development, a conservative manifesto, and globalization.

–Sheldon Richman
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  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.