Sunday, June 06, 2010

Government mired in crisis of size and scope

Published in The Tennessean, Sunday, June 6, 2010

Government mired in crisis of size and scope

by Richard J. Grant

If the General Welfare is our standard of reference, then we are now being shown that those people who are true-believers in Big Government are also the least competent in managing Big Government. Those who are out of touch with reality are most likely to be surprised by the consequences of their actions. They might not even see that those consequences were the result of their actions.

Those are perhaps the kindest words that one could say about the Obama administration. This is not a good time for the Obama presidency, which is now surrounded by the smoke of scandal, heavy handedness, incompetence, and strategic confusion. The American people are increasingly worried about the source of that smoke.

As governments grow in size and power beyond those very few functions for which they are both suited and justified, they become increasingly unmanageable, inefficient, and corrupt. In US history, the Anti-Federalists were particularly worried about the growth and centralization of governmental power. But even the Federalists would likely be dismayed by what has grown around their constitution.

As our governments have grown, particularly since World War I, people's expectations of government have also grown. This has changed not only our relationship with government and what it means to be a citizen, but also the types of leaders that we are likely to elect.

Voters must deal with more variables. Instead of choosing on the basis of a few traditional virtues, voters are faced with hundreds of policy trade-offs. Any one of those trade-offs could cause a particular voter to reject a candidate. The candidate least likely to lose such votes is the one who is little more than a blank screen upon which voters can project their own desires and illusions.

It would be unfair to expect any US president to be an expert in petroleum engineering (just in case an oil rig explodes), but the types of experts and cabinet officials with which the president surrounds himself will tell us much about his worldview, character, and fitness for the job. Much is revealed in a president’s response and moral consistency in a time of crisis.

The president is necessarily involved in the problem of the deep-sea oil well that is currently out of control (spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico), because the federal government controls the territory in which the well is located and the resulting pollution is causing widespread harm to the private property and livelihoods of thousands of citizens. Few could envy him at this time.

What is telling about the president is that one of his first clear statements resulting from the issue was a call for higher taxes on the oil industry in order to pay for the development of “clean” energy research and development. One could almost hear him exclaiming, "Tax, baby, tax!” But what we really need to hear from him is why BP was drilling in such a difficult location when there are so many potentially oil-rich sites in safer, easier-to-access locations that are currently out of bounds.

It might also be interesting to hear the president explain why subsidies are supposedly necessary to the nuclear-power industry. What that industry really needs is the rationalization of its regulatory structure, which currently imposes huge costs, delays, and uncertainty on any company that dares to proceed with construction. Also, why is the government hampering the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel? Is this not a more promising way to look at energy development than the current policy?

Our government can be too big and too heavy-handed. It is both. The true-believers in Big Government are currently making it worse, not better. The real current crisis in America is not environmental, not financial, and not medical.

The real crisis hinges on whether voters will continue to vote for true-believers in Big Government or for those who are more in touch with the real meaning of America.

Richard J. Grant is a professor of finance and economics atLipscomb University and a scholar at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. His column appears on Sundays.

Copyright © Richard J Grant 2007-2010