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Promoting the General Welfare

and Limited Government.

by Jonathan Wilson
January 19, 2004

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Promoting the General Welfare_Dear Jon-and Limited Government We are now in an election year, and the season of caususes and primaries is underway. This may be an election that I sit out. My enthusiasm for our sitting President waxed during his first "retroactive" tax cut, and waned in the formation of Homeland Security.

Formerly I was of the opinion that people with integrity and competence could be trusted to bring good government. While that is still true, I have also concluded that there are core beliefs that guide each policy-maker. One's world-view is going to influence one's decisions when in power.

I do not denigrate the integrity our sitting President, nor of the Democratic candidates in the field. In terms of competence, Dean would probably be a capable president, as would Kerry or Gephardt. I have my doubts about Al Sharpton, but only on the basis of his experience. It is hard to know whether Clark has the requisite political instincts to navigate a legislative agenda through Congress.

However, I believe that as a result of any of these or the incumbent being President, our nation will be worse off than before. I also believe that the more any of these are able to compentently and with integrity prosecute their agendas according to their convictions, the more worse off we will be.
The leading candidates in both parties are sincerely wrong. The assumptions they carry about "what needs to be done" will result in the erosion of our liberties.

I could write books on the particulars ranging from the liberal socialists on the radical wing of the Democrats to the neoconservative imperialists at the center of the Republicans. Instead, by naming the key problem we get at the heart of the reason why Democrats and Republicans have become interchangeable.

In the preamble of the Constitution of the United States, the federal government articulated its purpose and mission, and this preamble includes "promote the general welfare."

This statement is not the problem. The problem is that people desiring the power of political office, have elevated this priority over all other priorities delineated in the constitution, including, the limitations imposed on the federal government in the Bill of Rights.

"Promoting the general welfare" has been the promise of good-hearted people running for political office. They want to make a difference, they want to leverage their political power to improve life for everyone. At least, that is the promise they make, and we have been so inculcated with these values that we now assume that such promises are appropriate to make.

The conversation is no longer about whether to tax income; the conversation is now about "how much?" More or less depends on whether you are a Republican about the General Welfare: "Tax cuts means more spending power for consumers, thus more demand and more jobs and economic recovery," or a Democrat about the General Welfare, "Tax cuts mean deficits in government and less money for social projects that help people meet needs they can't afford."

Well-meaning politicians have discovered two ways to bribe voters: Promise tax cuts because the government is so generous, or, promise entitlements because the government is so generous. Politicians have leveraged this clause in the constitution to create paternalistic, co-dependent government.

Paternalistic, co-dependent government thrives on a public's sense of entitlement. In addition to an entitlement to retirement security (no matter one's spending habits) and an entitlement to health security (no matter one's lifestyle choices), We the People now believe we are entitled to safety (no matter the impact on civil liberties).

The conversation is no longer about the need for federal law enforcement agencies, the conversation is now about "can they listen to private phone lines without a court order?"

We need to return to a discussion about what truly promotes the general welfare. Some would say "No Government at All!" This, however, has been tried among societies that subsist as hunters and gatherers. Many of these societies practice infanticide, the abandonment of the weak or elderly, and have average life-spans of 35-40 years. With little or no central planning for infrastructure, there is of course no running water, gas heat, electric power, or passable roads to get to places with services.

Yes, well, what we need then, goes the argument, is a society with the gumption for technological advancement that can therefore create commodities, for sale and exchange on a Free Market. The general welfare can be promoted in a state of anarchy, provided that it has the commodities by which people can pursue their self-interests.

Yet somehow, for some reason, this has never happened aside from some kind of state-like apparatus. Engineering and literacy are fundamental to a free market society, and neither of these things occur in the absence of a government.

This is true because engineering projects are pointless unless a community is served, and written language is pointless unless it addresses communication within a community. Individuals promote their self-interest by developing private resources within an infrastructure of public resources.

When communities are in discussion about what is to their collective advantage, that is called "politics." Politics happened among the Sumerians 6000 years ago and politics happen among the Amish today. To say that Old Order Mennonites or Amish live in anarchy is to completely deny their own internal controls which, by any other name, is "government," and to deny that they are blessed by the broader community of religious freedom and liberty accorded to them within the United States.

Politics happen everywhere that people live in community, share written language, and enjoy the advantages of progressive engineering. Roads, fibre-optics, heat, running water. This is called "infrastructure" and it does promote the general welfare, and in all cases in history where government has collapsed, SO HAS THE INFRASTRUCTURE.

Consider Rome. Consider Congo. I say that government is, in fact, necessary to our general welfare. I do not even say that it is a "necessary evil." What is so evil about traffic lights?

The absence of traffic lights in Mexico is proof positive that traffic lights are "good," right? If we agree that traffic lights are actually okay, then do we make the argument that it is up to private businesses to install traffic lights where they want? How on earth would they collect any profit? Of course, we have to assume that streets and roads are okay before we even talk about traffic lights.

Obviously, to promote the general welfare, the answer is not to do away with government. Neither is the solution "Big Government." How many times must our world learn the lesson that "Big Government" has preceded "no government" and the loss of infrastructure? Has the Soviet experiment taught us nothing? Do we learn nothing from Argentina's predicament, or Japan's?

What if the solution is limited government? What if the design for that limited government is found in the constitution of the United States? What if Americans knew their constitution and decided to see if it actually might work?

Practically, I see government's role, whether federal or local, as being within the infrastructure of the community. The "general welfare" means that the highway is intended to serve the public; everyone is better off for having it. The government should not have that kind of role in the marketplace of the community.

We have confused "welfare" with "entitlement spending," and it is these entitlements that skewer the marketplace, creating false demands and inflationary pressures in health care (costs rise faster than inflation), education (ditto), housing (ditto), and in more invisible ways in the groceries and other commodoties we buy thanks to subsidies and trade barriers.

Space travel, for now, is about infrastructure. Hopefully it will be about free enterprise in a few decades, but infrastructure will always be part of it. Thus I see NASA as within the competence of government, and heartily support it.

One question I have is whether Health Care can be re-evaluated as a component of the infrastructure rather than of the marketplace. I do not have the answer right now. We are all living longer, and diseases are being treated, and that is wonderful. Yet government is in bed with pharmaceutical companies, health-insurers are dictating services rather than medical doctors, and the inflationary pressures are a grind both on the consumer and on the tax-payer. The disparity in the available services is widening between rich and poor. Big government acting as a manipulator in the marketplace has not proven to be the answer. My conviction is that the whole system needs to be re-invented by the engineers of medicine.

That is where I hope people start to take the discussion sometime within this generation, because it does not look like it will happen during this election. Are we making appropriate assumptions about the role of government? Are the alternatives to Bush authentic as alternatives, or do they just represent the flip-side of the same philosophy of Big Government paternalism? Are we being responsible students of our own past when we make our plans for the future and the government's role in it? Is my entitlement to a pension the same thing as the General Welfare?

Comments (2)

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August Ecklund from Arlington Hts, IL writes:
January 21, 2004
Like many Americans today, Jonathon Wilson is being torn apart by a dilemma. On the one hand, he recognizes that “Big Government” is destructive. However, on the other hand, he feels government must be responsible for the country’s infrastructure. After all, he asks, who will do it if government does not. I understand his point of view because I also have faced this dilemma. The problem is that we cannot have it both ways. If government has the right to interfere in some areas than it will assume the right to interfere in others. Essentially, the debate changes from whether or not regulation is good to a debate about which regulations are good and how much. The argument goes as follows. We need roads so the government should provide them. Then others say we also need healthcare, so the government should provide that as well. However, we all need jobs, money, security, water, electricity, oil, food, and happiness, should the government provide all this for us. One regulation leads to another and to another, etc. It never ends.

I do not think we need the government to build up the infrastructure. I actually think our infrastructure would be better if private companies built and maintained it. If you asked analysts in the railway industry, they would tell you that government spending on roads is the largest government subsidy program in the US. Local, state and federal governments spend billions each year so the automotive industry and ground freight shippers can sell their products. After all, without roads who would buy a car? Taxpayers (even those that do not drive) must bare the burden of providing these companies a market for their products. In actuality, it is the automobile and ground shipping companies that should be responsible for building their market (they are not entitled to sell cars, nor are we entitled to drive cars). They would find less expensive ways to build the roads and get a return on their investment when consumers bought their products. They could supplement their income with tolls collected on their largest highways.

I will use Jonathon’s analogy about traffic lights to illustrate further. True, a traffic light is not inherently bad, but the manner in which the government installs it is bad. Many studies show that a roundabout is more efficient and allows better traffic flow than a stoplight. Therefore, it is likely that consumers would prefer roundabouts to stoplights. However, the government bureaucrats that order the light do not care what the consumers want. Moreover, since the bureaucrats are not spending their own money they do not care how much it will cost. Government bureaucrats only care about using their entire budget each year so they can get more money the following year. Whether or not the consumers prefer or like the light does not matter. As a result, the consumers end up paying three times too much for an inefficient light and are stuck with poor traffic flow and poorly built roads.

In contrast, a private company has an inherent interest in understanding consumer needs. If it does not understand and then address those needs, it will not sell any products. Eventually, a company that loses touch with its consumers goes bankrupt (assuming that it does not receive government subsidies). Traffic flow and consumer preference becomes a high priority. How else can the automobile and ground shipping industry compete with the rail industry if it cannot guarantee easy and convenient traffic flow? Therefore, the company invests in cheaper, better-built roads that last longer and optimize traffic flow with either quality traffic lights or roundabouts. Finally, the only people that pay for the light are the people that use it.

Jonathan Wilson from Chicago writes:
January 21, 2004
Thank you, Mr. Ecklund, for your lucid discussion on the role of government. It is an argument I have been familiar with generally, and in particular, the injustices caused by road-building have been touted as, for example, minority neighborhoods were bull-dozed during the 1950's and 1960's for the building of the interstates.

Certainly the government is exposed to criticism in whatever action it takes. However, from the standpoint of history, we do not see the development of a thriving free-market in the absence of a governing apparatus. Why is this true? I do not know, but in my view, those who espouse anarchy are not being responsible to a deep level of sociological reality in which the apparatus of a complex economy is not constructed in the absence of some complex form of government. This is a morally neutral report on the lessons of history.

Another way to look at it: Who will contract with the builders of private roads, if not a government? It is not car-makers that can decide to build roads - land-owners must decide to build roads. When the land is owned privately, the land-owners must agree that a road cutting through their land serves their interests.

If a government of bureacrats and representative advocates does not exist, history shows us that land-owners will make a government themselves, often in the form of a home-owner's association. The association will take on representative and bureaucratic powers to do such things as negotiate with contractors for the building of roads. If courts do not exist, the land-owners will create a system of security and detention and arbitration. If a common defense does not exist, they will gather together and select a king to lead them in their battles. Where has a complex market system empowering the individual's pursuit of wealth ever developed in the absence of at least this minimal apparatus? The answer is nowhere.

These gradations can be seen even in pre-literate societies: the more complex the economies of the indigenous American peoples, the more complex their apparatus of government. Globally we are shown that these things are organic to the human community - they are not alien to the human condition.

An alternative is a society in which there is neither government nor private property. I described such a society in the article: people live to the age of 40, on average. I doubt very much that many of us would consider a return to such conditions as desirable.

Even James Leroy Wilson admitted that his dream of a society without government hits a snag when it comes to private property and all that comes with it, such as the necessity of boundary stones or deeds of title to prove the claim. Unless I'm sipping dew off the cactus leaves of the Outback while waiting for a wild goat to step out of hiding, the slippery slope to governance will begin somewhere.

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