The government giveth, and the government taketh away

August 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

From the blog of fellow geolibertarian Nicholas Rosen. This was originally a speech he delivered for Toastmasters. Wish we’d had the chance to see it delivered live.

WHEN I WENT TO COLLEGE,  I made the Dean’s List. There’s no need to congratulate me; it was actually an easy honor to obtain. A number of students found themselves on the Dean’s Enemies List; but my experience nonetheless contributed to my distrust of authority.

Yes, sometimes we need authority, need deans, army sergeants, judges, and even Congresscritters. But we should remain vigilant, and keep power limited, divided, and accountable. Power corrupts, and it attracts those who are already corrupt.

One Chicago City Councilman said to another Councilman, “I’m on the Ethical Practices Committee.” To which his colleague replied: “Oh? Have you found any?”

Not that Chicago has a monopoly on corruption. In Philadelphia, they’re now saving time by having new Councilmen sworn in and indicted in one ceremony.

Nor is corruption anything new. Back in the nineteenth century, Ambrose Bierce told the tale of an American political boss in Montreal. When a citizen of Montreal reproached him for having fled to escape prosecution, the American boss replied, “No, I have come to your city solely out of admiration for its political institutions. Its government is the most corrupt in the world.” They embraced, and when they parted, the American boss had two watches.

Even when politicians are not pickpockets — and some of them are sincere and honorable — the consequences of their policies can pose problems. For example, TARP, the stimulus, and Obamacare. The government does not have infinite resources, and cannot provide everything for everyone. When it acts as if it could, that sharpens conflicts over who gets the goodies.

Who gets bailed out, and who is left to go bankrupt? What does a government insurance program cover? Should it pay for abortion, for example? Should it pay for Avastin? That’s an expensive drug which doesn’t extend cancer patients’ lives by much, on the average, but does help some of them.

When a billion dollars is up for grabs, it makes sense for you to spend a few million to see that it’s given to you. That might be in outright bribes, campaign contributions, ostentatious donations to good causes and a PR campaign to tell the public how wonderful you are, or whatever. And then your rivals will spend to out-lobby you. As David Friedman put it, that’s why the government can’t even give anything away for free.

I could tell another joke, but I don’t need to. I remember a blurb from one of Art Buchwald’s books, saying that he used to be a political satirist, but then came the Reagan administration. He took to copying front-page news stories, and publishing them as satire. People told him that he had never been funnier. Well, read the paper [I brandished a copy of the Washington Post], and see if you can’t find something that reads like farce.

Financial corruption is not the greatest evil of bad government. A judge once shouted: “Order in the court! Be quiet back there! Six people have been convicted without my being able to hear a word of testimony.”

Unfortunately, there are real-life injustices like that. The expansion of laws has made everyone guilty of something. The distinguished lawyer Harvey Silverglate estimates that the average American commits three felonies a day.

[Turning to my left] Are you sure that you haven’t committed a felony this morning.

[Turning to my right] Was your most recent tax return in full compliance with the Internal Revenue Code? Have you read the Internal Revenue Code?

To update another of Bitter Bierce’s tales: Successive administrations had so impoverished the people that they gathered to cry and weep. An angel, hearing their lamentations, descended to Earth to find out the cause of their woe. “The politicians have taken everything that we possessed–everything, that is, except our hope of Heaven. That, they cannot take away.”

But then came the 115th Congress.


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