It’s been a while since we took on the venerable Thomas Friedman, best-selling author, New York Times columnist and apologist for dictatorship. His latest op-ed “Can’t We Do This Right?” (NYT, July 26, 2011) is an excellent showcase for two fallacies, both common to Friedman’s writing. What Mr. Friedman wants us to do in response to the so-called “debt ceiling crisis” is to (a) formulate a national plan through a special commission and (b) give the federal government the funds it needs to support that plan.
The first fallacy is that there is one clear and obvious way to tackle our national problems. The one correct way, of course, is Mr. Friedman’s way. He seems to believe that since he is a smart guy (which he is) and since he has thought long and hard about all the problems we face (which he clearly has), then he must have it right. Therefore, if you get a group of smart, thoughtful people together, they will quickly agree with all his prescriptions for our national future and how to get there. People who have different views must of necessity be either self-interested or not very smart. Mr. Friedman does not seem able to conceive of any reason intelligent people could honestly disagree. It’s no wonder that our political system bewilders him or that dictatorships seem so tempting.
In reality, we have never had a consensus on a “national vision” for the future and we never will. Americans are simply too diverse with different backgrounds, different educations, different upbringings, and they simply disagree on a great many things. Liberals genuinely believe in the power of government to improve society, in the existential threat of environmental degradation, in the power of diplomacy in foreign policy and in the need for fairness in economics. Conservatives genuinely believe in personal responsibility, free markets, limited government, the rule of law and a muscular foreign policy. Disagreements over social issues like abortion and gay marriage are equally severe and cut across even these lines.
Rush Limbaugh constantly accuses the left of being dumb and deliberately destructive. He’s wrong. Glenn Beck sees deliberate conspiracies in every statement from liberals. They’re not there. Even worse, Mr. Friedman’s latest op-ed calls the Tea Party not only “ignorant” but a “Hezbollah faction”. Hezbollah is a medieval group of anti-Semitic murderers who seek to overturn the Enlightenment. The Tea Party is a group of people who believe that the US government overregulates the society and spends too much money. Comparing the two is simply absurd.
We are seeing more and more from both sides (but particularly from the left) the tendency to argue that the strongly expressed views of the other side incite violence and should therefore be curtailed. The shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tucson last January and the horrendous terrorist murders in Oslo this past week by Anders Behring Breivik both initiated extensive press coverage of the supposed linkages between right wing rhetoric and violence. The argument that advocating limited government provokes murder is ridiculous.
Our constitution assumes major disagreements and offers us a way, albeit difficult and messy, of resolving them without killing each other. Demonization is simply a lazy man’s way of dismissing those who disagree with us and justifying silencing their voices. A few days ago, President Obama said to a La Raza audience, “Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting.” He clarified with “But that’s not how our system works.” But his audience nonetheless applauded his initial statement. We are all frustrated that the government won’t do things the way we want, but Mr. Friedman should understand that he is expressing a fundamentally totalitarian sentiment.
The second fallacy is that government is a committee of experts who meet in Washington to do what’s good for the country. Our Founding Fathers understood that this view is the root of tyranny. Elected politicians are an interesting group. From my experience, they tend to believe sincerely that their careers constitute public service and most (although by no means all) have a set of principles they believe in. They also understand that they cannot perform any public service unless they are elected, so their first responsibility is to win. The overwhelming majority of politicians never get beyond that first step. In a democracy, winning means assembling a coalition of constituencies which can deliver a majority of votes. The primary means of capturing a constituency is to deliver money, either as direct funds or subsidies or as indirect economic privileges, such as limitations on competition. The more money you have to distribute, the better your chances of capturing the voters you need to win reelection. Our system is thus a process of Washington extracting money from taxpayers and then redistributing the funds to favored constituents.
The Democrats have turned this process into an art, by granting unions, trial lawyers, community groups and others special favors in return for support. The Republicans, however, are not far behind. Remember that farm subsidies, including the abysmal ethanol program, are largely a project of farm-state Republicans. The two parties just distribute money to different constituencies. This process has been at work since the founding of our Republic, but it’s gotten much worse in the last 30-40 years, when elected officials discovered they could give their constituents some funds (like Social Security and Medicare) that would escalate at a rate faster than inflation. This automatic fund raiser, plus the constant demand for new programs, virtually ensure that government will increase as a share of the economy. The recent recession, plus the stimulus program, TARP and other spending have boosted the federal share of GDP from less than 20% to 25%.
Congressmen insist that their spending priorities support economic growth and social well-being. In Washington-speak, government spending is called “investment.” In fact, most of the new spending is simply wasted. Economic theory makes a clear distinction between public goods like defense, infrastructure and currency, and private goods like automobiles and toothpaste. In recent decades, federal government programs have spread well beyond public goods and massively into the private sphere. Most Democrats would say that nearly all goods (energy, housing, health care) are in fact public goods. That’s just an excuse to extract more money from the economy to spread around for political purposes.
Mr. Friedman needs to open his eyes when he talks about his government-mandated vision for the future. What he’s really talking about is central planning. The historical record on centrally planned economies is not ambiguous – they have all been disasters. There is a reason the Soviet Union lost the Cold War, and the reason is not stupidity on the part of the Russian people. When the entire economy is in the hands of government, all resources are allocated on political, not economic grounds. The Soviet Union existed for 72 years, promising to leap-frog western economic achievements, but left behind essentially zero capital stock (except Russia’s natural resources), a huge nuclear-armed military and a population impoverished, corrupted, oppressed, demoralized and unhealthy. So much for national visions.
When we buy a car, we (hopefully) make the decision ourselves after careful research. We don’t trust a car salesman to make the decision for us, because we know how car salesmen behave. They want the sale at the maximum price, and they could care less about our well-being. We are forced to trust the federal government for basic public goods which cannot be provided by the private market. Trusting the feds beyond that point is pure folly.