Guest Column | by Charles Johnson
Is the Problem Really Too Little Trust in Government?
Posted August 23, 2010
There is one point where I can unequivocally agree with E.J. Dionne's column "Can We Reverse the Tide on Government Distrust" (Washington Post, May 6, 2010) – when he tells us thatSo far, the Obama administration has missed the opportunity to demonstrate ... how it is changing the way government works. How is its approach to ... regulations different from what was done before? ... How are its priorities different?
Two years in, if there's any noticeable difference between Bush's policies of corporate privilege, endless warfare, bailouts, executive power, and bureaucratic expansion, and Obama's policies of corporate privilege, endless warfare, bailouts, executive power, and bureaucratic expansion, I'd like to know where to find it. The difference between me and E.J. Dionne is that Dionne is apparently surprised by this outcome — why hasn't Obama done better? At issue is what used to be calledGood Government– the problem of ensuring that a centralized managerial State, with expansive powers to intervene in all matters economic, social, or hygienic, will be run cleanly, and competently, by qualified experts. Dionne insists that financial market meltdowns, oil spills, and coal-mine disasters reveal the catastrophic results of a few years of Bush-era government neglect. Those of us who remember the Bush administration may have a hard time accepting the claim that it was an era in which government was not doing enough; and we see these headline-grabbing catastrophes as only the tail end of a decades-long crisis – a bipartisan, politically created crisis of institutional incentives and industrybest practice-ism,created, nurtured, and protected by government itself.
Dionne may present his article as a commentary on recent news, but the headlines are only carelessly chosen illustrations for a message that seems copied out of a children's civics textbook circa 1948. Elected government's task is tostand up for the many against the few,tomake sure that corporations are properly supervised,and toprotect those with weaker bargaining positions ... against the harm that those in stronger bargaining positions might inflict.Our problem is simply that we do not trust the political means enough. According to Dionne, if we are ever to solve these politically created crises, we need to knowthat government in a free society is not a distant force but, rather, something that all of us influence and shape.
To be sure, government is not very distant from the downtown offices of the Washington Post. For the rest of us, though, access is somewhat more limited, and not "all of us" have the same influence in shaping government policy. That is done by political insiders and economic incumbents: As scholars like Gabriel Kolko and Butler Shafer have repeatedly shown, government regulatory bodies from the FTC to the MSHA to the SEC have consistently been captured by the incumbents in the industries they are supposed to regulate, systematically rigging government regulations in such a way as to build up cartels, exclude competition, and protect businessmen from liability for harmful practices.
Even with the record of regulatory capture and industry-driven policy, Dionne, like many Progressives, simply insists that politicians need even more trust and fewer restraints on action to give them the independence to do the right thing. You might call this kind of Progressivism a theory of trickle-down politics: When government devotes the overwhelming majority of its power and resources to foolish or destructive programs directed by concentrated interests – subsidies, bailouts, anticompetitive regulations, or an ever-growing military-industrial "National Security" complex – the proposed solution is to give that same government even more strength and greater resources to dispose of, on the hope that some of the surplus will eventually make it through the net of insider control to reach programs that offer a pittance to the little guy.
Individualists know that when you reward the institutions that created crisis, you are going to get more crises. Greater regulatory powers will only make government more attractive to industry incumbents; the more politics is involved in industry, the more that political pull pays off for the industrialists. The root causes of the crises we've faced in recent years are not problems of competence or corruption. They are problems of cartelization and capture. The solution is not more trust in government; it's to realize there are things the political means just cannot accomplish, which should instead be addressed through decentralized, peaceful social cooperation.
The article also includes some brief recapitulations of the Money Monopoly, the Land and Natural Resource monopolies, and the recent history of BP, Massey Energy, and the MSHA. You can read the whole thing at The Freeman Online to-day.
Thanks to Sheldon Richman, again, for making this possible, and for his invaluable aid as an editor. My only complaint is that I think The Freeman really should have chosen a better author photo for me than the one they have at the top of the story. In that one the camera adds about 20 years, and a lot of corporate liberalism.