The Open Mind III Riposte: Abridged

ShrinkWrapped has offered a first, abbreviated response to my Open Mind III post, Principia Liberalis. He explains below. Comments on this post are closed at this site and should be made at ShrinkWrapped.

The Open Mind III Riposte: Abridged

I had planned on addressing Jay’s 25 point Principia Liberalis today but time pressures have interfered.  There are many excellent responses to his post in the comments and their points should be incorporated; as a result my response requires significant time and thought than I can not spare from my work today.  In this abridged reposes, with a fuller response to follow on Monday, I do want to address one issue specifically that  he presents in points 22 and 23, that is the question of the optimal size of government.

22. Government is neither good nor bad. It is necessary. Neither is its size good or bad. It should be the size necessary to fulfill the responsibilities judged to be appropriate to it. Government is best assigned those responsibilities that are necessary to the commonweal above what is necessarily optimally efficient, though it need not be an enemy of efficiency. Sources of optimal efficiency cannot concern themselves with the common good whilst remaining optimally efficient; they must be managed when applied to the common good so that a balance is achieved between efficiency and the breadth of the benefit they deliver.

23. A breadth of interests entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Even a benign power will be caught in this cycle of mutual reinforcement. Imperial behavior, conceived only as protection of interests, can expand innocently and then be justified, in the maintenance of an imperial nature, as a necessary protection of interests.

It seems to me that a fundamental difference between Conservatives/Libertarians and Liberals concerns the question of the optimal size of government.  Jay states that the size of government is “neither … good or bad” (sic)* but I would take issue with his point.   The government Jay refers to as being neither good nor bad, whose size is neither good nor bad, seems to me to be a “Platonic Ideal”.  That is, he imagines a government designed to solve certain problems, with enough power and size to adequately address the particular issue, with minimal interests of its own which might skew its ability to act in the dispassionate service of its people.   While to a certain extent Jay contradicts 22 with 23, and notes that even a benign power generates its own interests, I think he underestimates how significant this is; any government (indeed any construct made by man) will not only have its own interests but will generate new interests as time goes on.  It is trite to say that the first goal for politicians is to get elected and the second goal is to get re-elected, but beyond that, once in power, with power to wield over others, a host of interests (conscious and otherwise) some more benign, some more malignant, become active “attractors” in the process of governing.

Ken Willis, who comments here as Flash Gordon, in the course of his post considering Why Smart Politicians Do “Stupid” Things, linked to an article from the esteemed Thomas Sowell from a week ago:

In a column from November 24th he said:

No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems— of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind.

Many of the things the government does that may seem stupid are not stupid at all, from the standpoint of the elected officials or bureaucrats who do these things.

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

The great economist James Buchanan has given a scholar’s analysis to this thinking, in his Public Choice Theory which holds that polticians and bureaucrats approach everything the same way actors in the private sector do, from their own self interest.

The larger a government grows, the more it will, of necessity, infringe upon the rights and freedoms of its subjects.  It does not matter if the intent is consciously benign or malignantly evil.  A small government run by an evil man can do much less damage to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness than a benign government of immense size.  The larger the government, even one based upon democratic and representative principles, controlled by people who wish only to help and improve the lot of their subjects, the more likely they are to evolve into a tyranny.  Beyond a certain size, tyranny (even the tyranny of good intentions) is inevitable.  I do not know what size the American government would need to grow to to endanger our freedoms and facilitate tyranny, but I have  no doubt that those who wish to control our lives “for our own good” are just as much a danger, though more covert and perhaps unconsciously motivated, than those who wish to rule us merely for their own aggrandizement.

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*A note on SW’s “(sic)” in his quotation from my original post. He has mistaken the application of “neither” in my sentence “Neither is its size good or bad.” That sentence works in coordination with the two preceding sentences, the three together reading: “Government is neither good nor bad. It is necessary. Neither is its size good or bad.” The adjective neither, in the first sentence, is modifying, in negative exclusion, “good” and “bad.” The “neither of the third sentence is not modifying “good” and “bad” in that sentence; it is modifying, in negative exclusion, “government” in the first sentence and “size” (of government) in the third sentence. One may imagine a sentence that begins “Neither government nor the size of government….” Neither of these is (in itself) good. Neither of these is bad. They are not good or bad. (Neither of them exhibits the positive alternative of being good or bad.) So I might have written, “Neither government nor the size of government is good or bad.” However, that reads a bit awkwardly for the very reason of this complicated grammar. For that and other, rhetorical reasons, I wrote the sentences as I did, correctly. In SW’s reformulation of my sentence, the “or” would be incorrect, indeed, but the reformulation mistakes the application of the “neither” from the original. Ah, grammar!

AJA