Topic: Government and Politics

Demand for Subsidies

My op-ed on National Review Online today provided new information about the increasing number of federal subsidy programs. The federal welfare state is expanding rapidly.

One friendly reader emailed me:

Ever cross your mind that there’s a reason government programs increase over time? I’ll clue you in: Programs increase because of public demand.

It’s not rocket science, people want more services. Period. Somebody’s got to pay for them. Hences taxes. Or perhaps borrowing. Or a combination of both. In any event, there’s no evidence people are willing to get along with fewer services.

The situation seems simple to me; so why can’t you ideologues on the far right understand what’s going on. Instead, you simply go on bemoaning the existence of programs and taxes you don’t like.

There are numerous problems with this reader’s views, including constitutional problems. But one thing that strikes me is the underlying assumption of the “public interest theory of government,” or the idea that democracies and bureaucracies operate to efficiently provide “services.”

In reality, there are structural problems in government that bias policymakers toward fiscal irresponsibility, as our current $1.8 trillion federal deficit indicates. The issue is not ideology, it is scientific: Does the government actually work as the optimists, like this reader, believe? I think the empirical evidence is in on that question.

Oprah Escapes the Long Arm of the Law

oprahThe Washington Post reports on the latest ruling by the Federal Election Commission:

William Lee Stotts of Cordova, Tenn., filed a complaint in October alleging that Obama’s appearance on Winfrey’s popular talk show during the Democratic primaries amounted to an unlawful campaign contribution that gave him an ‘an unfair advantage over the other candidates, both Republican and Democrat, who were deprived such an opportunity.’

The FEC decided that Winfrey was a media entity and thus qualified for the “media exemption” from the campaign finance laws. Without that exemption, Obama’s appearance would have become an electioneering communication and thereby a violation of McCain-Feingold.

The FEC provides a timely reminder that we no longer have a unified First Amendment. Congress shall indeed “make no law” regarding the freedom of the media, including the freedom to publicize a presidential candidacy. That’s a good thing, by the way. The bad thing is the rest of us are expected to make do with Congress making all kinds of laws limiting freedom of speech. Some animals, I suppose, are more equal than other animals.

A Poll for Tax Day

The latest poll to ask the question “would you prefer a more active government with more services and higher taxes or a smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes?” found that 66 percent prefer smaller government and lower taxes, to only 25 percent who prefer a “more active government” with more services.

Note that the poll doesn’t even say “larger government”; Rasmussen has actually made the wording more favorable toward big government.

As I’ve noted before, the usual “smaller government” question, as asked by CBS and other pollsters, is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government – “more services” – but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option.

That’s what the Rasmussen poll does. And it shows that people prefer lower taxes to more government services.

Tax Day

Fox News and MSNBC are having fun with the taxpayer tea party protests today. Fox News is playing up the protests, while MSNBC hosts are making jokes about “tea-bagging,” while pretending that the protests were all orchestrated by Sean Hannity. I’ll be attending the protests in D.C. today, and I’m hoping that the message isn’t just anti-Obama because the Republicans are every bit as guilty as the Democrats for the government’s fiscal mess.

MSNBC hosts who think that the colonists didn’t mind taxes, but were just upset about the “without representation” part, should read Alvin Rabushka’s massive tax history leading up to 1776, Taxation in Colonial America.

Doing my taxes last night, I asked my twins (age 5 1/2): “If Mommy and Daddy had $100, how much should we give to the government?” One twin said “5” and the other said “10,” so they are off to good start on understanding limited government. Mommy reminded the kids that the government provides useful services such as fire and police, but the kids were comfortable with their answers.

I would footnote that state/local fire, police, and corrections spending amounts to just 4 percent of total government spending in the United States.

Pirates as Proto-Governments? You Bet!

I have to confess I don’t understand why Roger Pilon and Ilya Shapiro are criticizing our colleagues Ben Friedman and Peter Van Doren below.  At the risk of being cast as yet another cog in the insidious piratofascist fifth column, I’d like to defend Ben and Peter.

Roger and Ilya reproach Ben and Peter for likening pirates to “pseudo-governments” and mount an impassioned defense of the nation-state as deserving a place in a different category from pirates.

On the distinction between the two, they write: “A tax, at least in principle, and most often in practice, is a charge for a service rendered –- not necessarily a wanted or an evenly distributed service, to be sure…”  To be sure, indeed!  There’s a term for charging people for an unevenly distributed and unwanted service.  It’s called racketeering.  Their description of taxation could apply quite well to a mafia.

Roger and Ilya would prefer to keep pirates and governments in two discrete categories but provide little reason why other than the above.  But if they dislike the analogy, their problem is not with Ben or Peter or Noam Chomsky or St. Augustine, but rather with a body of well-developed academic literature.  In particular, one of the preeminent scholars of the formation of national states, the late Charles Tilly, wrote a famous book titled Coercion, Capital, and European States that would help color in the gaps for them.  The short version is that European elites came to form national states as a means for protecting their fiefdoms from other proto-states, which frequently had predatory aims, and that this process sometimes had the incidental effect of protecting the populaces that lived under state jurisdiction and could be used as means for making war against the neighbors.

Tilly also wrote a well-known essay titled “War Making and State Making As Organized Crime” that makes the following claim: “Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making all belong on the same continuum.” Tilly went on:

In retrospect, the pacification, cooptation, or elimination of fractious rivals to the sovereign seems an awesome, noble, prescient enterprise, destined to bring peace to a people; yet it followed almost ineluctably from the logic of expanding power. If a power holder was to gain from the provision of protection, his competitors had to yield. As economic historian Frederic Lane put it twenty-five years ago, governments are in the business of selling protection … whether people want it or not.

Governments and pirates both “put the victim to a choice between two of his entitlements – his freedom and his property.”  In the literature on state formation, this isn’t a controversial point.  I’m really surprised to see that it is for two libertarians.

Dust Off Your Tinfoil Hats

It’s official. Everyone supportive of federalism and/or upset about taxes, etc., is now considered a potentially dangerous “rightwing extremist” by Homeland Security.

From all around the web:

A footnote attached to the report by the Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis defines “rightwing extremism in the United States” as including not just racist or hate groups, but also groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority.

Pirates as Tax Collectors?

[Co-authored with Ilya Shapiro.]

As we suspected, with world attention focused on the just-concluded piracy standoff, it was only a matter of time before someone would write something like this: “the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government.” Perhaps the Mafia too –- “pay, or we break your legs” –- is like a pseudo-government.

The difference between a tax and extortion is not subtle, even if it seems to have escaped the cited authorities, including Noam Chomsky. A tax, at least in principle, and most often in practice, is a charge for a service rendered –- not necessarily a wanted or an evenly distributed service, to be sure, but most relevant here, protection from third-party pirates and other lawless predators, domestic and foreign. By contrast, a pirate’s shakedown puts the victim to a choice between two of his entitlements –- his freedom and his property. That distinction –- again, hardly subtle –- is what prompted us to leave the state of nature. Those who would like to return to that state will find it waiting for them on the horn of Africa.