Well it’s almost over. In a couple of weeks we’ll have survived what will surely be remembered as one of the crazier election years in memory. However the election turns out the winners will be dealing with deeper systemic problems than any incoming administration/Congress has had to deal with in at least a generation if not two. It seems to me that they will be confronted with some hard questions that have not really been addressed in a long time. Those include:
- What role should government play in our country?
- Of the myriad programs that government currently manages, which should remain and which should be jettisoned?
- How much money should we spend on the programs we decide to keep?
- How do we get the money to pay for those operations?
Unfortunately we’ve spent decades with people screaming at each other about the role of government, yet in reality we as a society haven’t had an honest conversation about it. We hear talking heads spouting catch phrases like "government is the problem, free markets are the solution" but never discuss how a free market can exist without government or at least within the governed society.
Ironically if you start to get down and dirty in a debate with folks from either side of the ideological aisle they almost immediately begin to moderate themselves. For people who want to trim government to the bone just find the government program that they value and offer to cut it and all of the sudden they’re advocating for "smart government." For people who want the government to provide for every need simply say that it’s no problem but they will have to use the services as the government dictates and all of the sudden they start arguing for limited government.
The reality is that we need to have a long, painful discussion about what America’s priorities are. To have a civil society we must have government. I’d say with the exception of our friendly neighborhood anarchists we can all agree with that. The differences come in what we ask the government to do. We need to remember that much of what we take for granted in terms of government hasn’t always existed. We didn’t start paying income taxes until WWI (well we paid them during the Civil War but then stopped in 1872). On the other hand we didn’t have Social Security until the 1930s or Medicare until the 1960s.
My point is that there is no reason for us to limit our conversation to making incremental changes to government programs. Right now we have a unique opportunity to make radical changes because we all know that the system we have now is royally effed up although we can argue all day about the reasons why they are. So what to do? Personally I think we should put those four basic questions I listed above to the populace and find out what this country really wants for the future.
So what role should our government play? My personal preference is that the government limit itself as much as possible to the role of referee. While certain jobs should always be fulfilled directly by the government (i.e. defense), for most the government should provide a safe environment for private enterprise to fulfill those roles. A difficult part of this discussion will be deciding which programs fit the bill for government delivery. Energy? Transportation? Health care? Education? Parks?
For arguments sake who says that public schools are the best answer? With today’s technology isn’t it possible that distributed education regulated by government might be better and more cost effective? Isn’t it possible that it would be more effective to take public school funding and have private enterprises compete for the dollars? I can almost guarantee that if you had a bunch of companies competing for students in Washington, DC the kids would be getting a better product than what they’re getting now. On the flip side look at the craziness we’ve begot with Medicare. That’s a program paid for with government dollars and administered by private enterprise and it’s looking like an absolute boondoggle.
Once we decide on the programs we’re going to keep under the government’s control we’ll have to decide how much to spend on them. In other words we’ll need to decide how big the military should be, how much money should be provided to state and local law enforcement agencies, how much to spend on building and maintaining roads or if more money should be spent on mass transit, what kind of energy generation projects should we pay for (solar, nuclear, coal, etc.) and the list goes on.
For those industries we decide to regulate we’ll need to determine how far regulations should go. We’ve seen in the financial sector that too much regulation can stifle growth, but not enough regulation can lead to meltdown. Most likely we’ll only determine the appropriate levels of regulation through trial and error, but it’s crucial that we allow private enterprise to provide as many services as possible in a competitive environment so that we keep the cost of delivery down.
Finally we need to figure out how to fund the government. Is an income tax really the best way to go? Other industrial countries seem to be having success with VATs, so might it be a better way for us to go? Also, and not insignificantly, we need to remind ourselves that as members of this society it is in our interest to pay taxes. Those taxes pay for our security and welfare, so the issue isn’t whether or not to pay taxes but determining how much is fair to pay and what those taxes should fund.
These are huge and important issues but we have not been asked to confront them. Our leaders pay them lip service, but in reality the vested interests debate these issues among themselves and we the people rarely get asked for our take on it. I’m sure the powers that be think that the average citizen isn’t interested in the details and will only sit still for sound bites, but I think that if we were provided with the information in plain English and allowed to see for ourselves exactly how things have been working lo these many years, they might be fairly well surprised at the response they’d get. Let’s put it this way: we the people seemed to have pretty good instincts when the Bush administration tried to cram that bailout package down our throats.
Hopefully whoever wins this election, Presidential and Congressional, will engage our country in this kind of fundamental conversation. If not I truly worry about the country I’ll be living in during my old age, and I don’t even want to think about what my kids and grandkids will be facing.