It’s been a while since I posted here, and I’m introducing a new category: Elimination Dance.
Instructions: An elimination dance begins with a crowded dance floor. At a signal, the band stops playing and the announcer reads an elimination, say, “Any lover who has gone into a flower shop on Valentine’s Day and asked for clitoris when he meant clematis.” Any dancer answering this description must sit down, and his partner is also disqualified. The process continues (e.g. “Any person who has burst into tears at the Liquor Control Board”) until a single couple remains.
(from the description of Michael Ondaatje’s book by the same title)
This new category, in other words, is for all the things I wish would go away. My first is small-government fanatics. For some reason I’ve allowed myself to rant in the comments of a couple friends’ blogs this week in response to passionate small-government fanaticism and comments I somewhat unfairly deemed as such.
Small-government fanatics seem to believe we are a prosperous and successful country in spite of our government – rather than because of it, whereas I believe the truth is very much both.
We are beneficiaries of two centuries of government protection and support – much of which we basically seem to take for granted at this point, and much of which few people would really want to go back and undo. Of course there have been missteps too, but the small-government libertarian crowd usually fails to acknowledge the ways in which we have benefited.
One core principle of small-government fanatics is free markets, or as my friend Jay unambiguously put it: “The free market is one of the greatest gifts to mankind in all of our history.”
I think, however, that total market freedom almost inevitably leads to “tragedy of the commons” scenarios. People and businesses will pursue their own desires even to the detriment of everyone’s needs. They pursue immediate individual gains that risk (and often cause) generalized future catastrophe.
If government does not serve to protect the commons from the individual, then what – or who – will?
Before the FDA required drug companies to prove their products were not dangerous prior to putting them on the market, there were numerous incidents of contamination – sometimes maiming or killing thousands (thalidomide, diethylene glycol). What’s the free-market alternative to this? The free-market response might be to put a company out of business because one of their products killed a few thousand people, but um… the company KILLED people. That was the free-market drug industry before the FDA.
What about a more straightforward tragedy of the commons? I have a hard time envisioning a free-market solution to protecting fisheries from individual companies competing against each other to pull in the biggest catches. The companies know when they are pushing fisheries toward collapse, but they also know that if they hold back, then others will just step in and out-fish them. What’s the free-market answer?
This is similar in nature to what happened in our financial markets. Smart people knew they were taking insane risks that were not sustainable, in order to reap huge short-term gains. But they also knew that if they didn’t do it, plenty of other people would out-gain them in the short term, and they would be fired.
For whatever reason, it’s easier for me to stomach this problem with the financial markets (as part of the cost of doing business – even if it hurts a lot of innocent bystanders), than with things like forests and fisheries. Damage done to forests and fisheries is longer-lasting.
I have a hard time believing our country’s major parks and wilderness areas would ever have been created without our government deciding to do so (imagine how many more dams could have been built along the Colorado River and how many more trees harvested in Appalachia if companies were free to do so). I’m personally happier to have the parks and wildernesses.
Scientists have been sounding alarms about atmospheric carbon and climate change for five decades, warning us about a point-of-no-return. We probably needed to start doing things differently 10 years ago to avoid the point-of-no-return, but what free market incentive existed to do so? None, and that’s why we’re in the predicament we’re in.
If you believe there are no situations when the collective good is more important than individual gains, then my argument is lost on you. I don’t believe this. And it’s hard to imagine who would aim us toward the collective good if the government was not trying to do so.
It’s fair to argue that the government does not operate effectively or efficiently enough, but I think the answer is to improve it, not to eviscerate it.
I think it’s good and necessary to debate each threshold of government intervention (currently, healthcare), but I think we need to acknowledge how much existing government protection and support we take for granted and would not want to give up.