Back to Those Darn Freeloaders

More on that freeloader problem (today with less snark).

What was the point of my snark yesterday?  There were multiple motivators:

1.  The fact that it is amusing and telling to see a Governor like Rick Perry turning to the federal government for help.  Amusing because Perry has engaged in some fairly strong rhetoric about federal funds in recent years (for example:  here, here and especially here).  Telling because it underscores that, in fact, we do need one another and that there are situations in which a state has to admit that it is simply part of a whole rather than a sovereign, self-contained entity.

2.  Following on that last point, I was also struck by the fact that things like natural disasters, in this case the fires in Texas and the tornadoes in North Carolina, demonstrate that states are not as powerful and capable as some of the more extreme interpretations of federalism like to pretend.  Further, as my parting jibe in the above-linked post at the Tenthers would indicate, I think that those who insist on a stark interpretation of  Article I, Section 8 are being quite simplistic in what they think the federal government can/should do (especially in light of two and a quarter centuries of evolution).  In other words: if citizens in one part of the country are being burned, flooded or whatever we end up being Americans more than Texans, Floridians, etc.  The focus, to be clear, is one the people and not the lines on the map.*

3.  There are some analogies to be made here to health insurance.   A commenter in a previous thread argued that the Ryan Plan for Medicare would work well because people are well equipped to choose appropriate insurance policies for themselves in terms of their ability to predict the future about what types of services they will need.  Yet sometimes even the seemingly best and most reasonable planning is inadequate.  And sometimes in those situations there needs to be some sort of backstop.**  I am not prepared to evaluate whether in the Texas and North Carolina cases in terms of whether the backstop of federal funds are truly warranted or not (as yes, I do think that some disaster declarations are too easily made), but it is clearly the case that such circumstances do exist (e.g., Katrina and the BP oil spill).

It is always easy to say that people ought to take care of themselves when our house is not on fire, underwater, or blown away.  It is easy to say that people who get unemployment payments are lazy when we have jobs.

Now, yes:  sometimes your house is underwater because you built it somewhere that it shouldn’t have been built.  And yes, sometimes the guy getting unemployment benefits is a bum.

I am not arguing that the government ought to step in every time we catch a bad break and I agree that there are abuses to the system, sometimes maddening ones.  Inefficiencies and even fraud are going to be part of any system (even those in the private sector)—so the question becomes whether you scrap an entire system because some people are going to get more than their due or whether you maintain the system because the overall good outweighs the bad.

I am fundamentally arguing against the notion, which many seem to subscribe to, that the choice is dichotomous:  government or no government.  Or, even, against the notion that government is a “necessary evil.”  No, government is simply necessary.  The trick is getting the mix right.

The thing is, we expect the government to act as the actor of last resort.  Indeed, it is one of the reasons to have government in the first place.

One can philosophically believe that it ought not be this way.  One can argue that every individual ought to be utterly responsible for themselves.  Of course, if that is your position, I certainly hope that one did not attend public schools (either K-12 or at the university level).  I certainly hope that one never drives on public roads or eats food that has been subjected to health inspections.

In other words:  the issue is not a choice between government and no government (or as a commenter put it this morning, between free markets and central planning***).  The choice is how much government.

In conclusion:  I think we, as a country, would have a better time dealing with some our daunting fiscal challenges if we could be honest about what government actually does do so that we could, in turn, have a debate about what it ought to be doing.  This in turns leads to a more legitimate discussion of how much it should do and how it should be paid for.

To return to the original inspiration:  it is ludicrous to say things like “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot” (Rick Perry-almost exactly two years ago) and then ask for federal disaster funds.   Fundamentally all this does is expose the quote for what it is:  red meat rhetoric meant to tickle the ears of the faithful–not something to be taken seriously.  The problem is that the faithful then go home thinking about how they don’t need the federal government because, after all, they’re Texans.****

At least until the wildfires come (or the tornadoes, the hurricanes, the earthquakes, the floods, the oil spills, the collapse of the savings and loans, the collapse of the financial sector…).

——

*I make this point because many of the discussions (especially from people who extol the Senate as the pinnacle of the Founders’ innovations, or who want to repeal the 17th Amendment) like to speak in terms of states as though they are something other than places where American citizens live.

**Unless we want to take the position that no matter what happens that one is struck with one’s decisions.  Didn’t buy the insurance for that wholly unpredictable hurricane or earthquake the likes of which no one even contemplated?  Too bad:  die homeless because you didn’t adequately foresee the future.

***I would note, btw, that central planning encompasses the notion of setting the price of goods and services as well as the level of production and the like.  In other words instead of market forces of supply and demand determining the amount of what is produced and what its price will be is determined by bureaucrats.  There is very little of such things happening in the US economy.  Yes, there are any number of policies that interfere with perfect market conditions.  For example, food safety rules affect price (driving it upward to some degree).  In a perfect market we wouldn’t have such standards and the market would determine (based on who got sick eating where, for example).  In short:  the government does not tell McDonald’s how many burgers to produce or what their price should be, but various regulations (food safety, worker safety, minimum wages, child labor laws, etc.) do affect price.

This is regulation, not central planning.

****And I write this as a Texans living abroad (in Alabama) who fully understands, and even revels at time, in Texas bravado.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. jwest says:

    Steven,

    Disregarding the multiple straw men you lined up, I believe the real discussion centers around what is considered to be “central planning”.

    Government needs to set the rule of law to encompass broad principles and apply them equally to everyone. The government cannot “bend” the laws when the outcome doesn’t produce results as equally as some would like. That amounts to central planning.

    For central planning to occur, it’s not necessary to have a commissar directing the number of shovels to be produced each year, it only takes a government willing to arbitrarily modify the rules in the middle of the game in order to benefit some entity, usually on the basis of “fairness”.

  2. mantis says:

    jwest’s ever shifting definition of “central planning” is quite amusing. In the other thread it seemed to mean basically anything the government does. Now it’s only when government “arbitrarily modif[ies] the rules in the middle of the game in order to benefit some entity, usually on the basis of “fairness”.”

    Guess what, jwest, if they do it to promote fairness, or to “benefit some entity,” or both, it’s not arbitrary. It’s also not necessarily central planning at all, and in the U.S. most likely is not. You have a very, very weak grasp of what a planned economy is, and what we have here in the U.S. Not surprising, as you have a very weak grasp of reality in general.

  3. john personna says:

    George Washington was totally a big central planner.

  4. Boyd says:

    I’m not sure where you get your definition of “central planning,” jwest, but I’d guess it’s a dark and stinky place.

    I agree with your point that government is necessary, Steven, while believing that what we’ve gotten in our governments here in the US goes waaaaay beyond what’s necessary.

    While I see your point about decrying fedgov involvement and then later asking for their assistance, it’s not as hypocritical as you claim. We’ve already paid a portion of our own money into the federal coffers for various things, disaster relief included. Should we just say, “Keep our money that you required us to pay you for this purpose. We’ll go it alone on all the other money we’ve got.”

    Politician cats is politician; they’re going to say ridiculous things, because that’s what they do. And a state self-insuring against such disasters would definitely place a larger burden on the state’s finances. But there’s at least the possibility that they’d have the money to cover it if they hadn’t sent so much to Washington. “Ludicrous” overstates the circumstances when you omit half of the equation.

  5. jwest says:

    Mantis,

    We’ve come to the basic difference between conservatives and liberals.

    Conservatives want government to insure the equality of opportunity, liberals want government to insure the equality of outcome.

  6. We’ve come to the basic difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives want government to insure the equality of opportunity, liberals want government to insure the equality of outcome.

    Except that that is a slogan and is blatantly not true.

    Setting aside which camp I put myself in (I know where you think I belong, but that’s another discussion): apart from the rhetoric of rightward commentators, I do not see anyone preaching (let along legislating) equality of outcome. Where is this mythical creature of which you speak?

  7. @Boyd:

    I agree that there is a pay in, get benefits out process going on here. However, I would state that the bolster, rather than weakens, my point.

    And in re: politicians doing what politicians do–I agree and did make passing reference to that in the post. However, what I am more concerned with is that number of citizens who swallow whole what politicians (and pundits) say. It leads to an utterly unrealistic view of what government is or isn’t (and really, that is what I am trying to get out in this post and the last).

  8. ponce says:

    The wingnut hypocrisyabout government spending isn’t just limited to emergencies.

    Most Republican states couldn’t survive economically without constant massive income transfers from wealthy Democratic states like New York and California.

    The louder a Republican politician screams about federal government spending, the deeper their state’s snout is buried into the federal government trough.

  9. hey norm says:

    a basic problem is that most people are unaware of what the government is doing for them, and this has been borne out in studies.
    ask someone if they are getting government housing subsidies. they’ll probably say no but they are probably getting a mortgage interest tax deduction.
    ask someone if they are getting health care subsiides. they’ll probably say no but they are probably getting insurance from an employer who is getting a tax break for providing it.
    did they get student loans? education credits? earned income credits?
    then of course there is the “keep government out of my social security and medicare and farm subsidies” crowd. (most of them have tea bags dangling from there hats)
    also – there has never been a free market without government intervention. never. ever. this free market/socialism dichotomy coming from the tea party is simply ridiculous on the face of it.
    so yeah – as SLT points out, we should be honest about what government is doing – but first people need to gain just a basic understanding about what government is doing.

  10. @hey norm:

    You capture the essence of what I am trying to say quite well–thanks.

  11. john personna says:

    my favorite is the roads. it’s easy for people to think it’s a private transportation system, or failing that that gas taxes pay for the government role. but it’s not true. the general fund (income taxes, etc.) pay for highway construction and maintenance.

    but … those same general funds can’t pay for buses, trains, or bike paths, because that’s communist.

    id-jets

  12. reid says:

    Unfortunately, there’s been a concerted effort over many years to tar liberals and, more recently, government itself as bad things. That kind of propaganda takes a subtle toll over time and results in hyperpartisan, irrational TP-types (see jwest). Too few people have been willing to stand up against these attacks. The media’s been sliding to the right for years, and Democrats have been spineless. Can’t wait for the pendulum to start swinging back for a generation or two….

  13. reid says:

    jp, you sound like a filthy central planner. Derp, I win!

  14. john personna says:

    ;-), I think the most brutal thing we could do to car culture would be to reverse the central planning, and force gas tax to pay for roads.

  15. hey norm says:

    john personna:
    yes exactly – and the wealthiest benefit most from things like roads, or internet, etc., and so i think it’s not un-reasonable to ask them to pay more for them. i know that’s a radical thought, but…
    and another thing, which may be a little off-topic…but manufacturers and energy producers are allowed to spew filth into our rivers and our air but they aren’t really required to pay for the priviledge. so-called republicans used to want to back when cap-and-trade was their idea, but then obama backed it and they changed their minds. no matter, but let’s be clear – it is a basic role of the government to protect me from people like that – from those who i am unable to protect myself from.
    so i understand why a party that thinks that an effective tax rate of 17% is way too high for the wealthy would want to abdicate these kinds of responsibilities in order to lower their effective tax rate even further. i just don’t hapen to agree with them. (plus i look terrible with tea bags hanging from my hat.)

  16. Axel Edgren says:

    The problem with the Outcome/Opportunity babble: It seems as if few on the right understand that the opportunity of the child is based on the outcome the parents saw before having the child. This is a serious problem – poor people rarely have a shot at college in the US even if they know how to study and think well, and this hampers meritocratic forces that are meant to help society.

  17. hey norm says:

    Axel…
    of course it’s babble. i fail to see how ensuring that everyone has access to affordable health care, for instance, is about equality of outcome. it’s simply a ridiculous construct that is blithely untethered from reality.
    what it’s actually about is a largely homogenous group of people who already have theirs, and are afraid that “others” are going to take it away. instead of a rising tide that floats all boats, they want to keep the tide at bay so that their boat will float along on the status quo. it’s selfish, narrow-minded, and frankly un-american.

  18. jwest says:

    Boyd,

    Conservatives believe that a proper role of government is to collectively organize and aid citizens in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. (I’m paraphrasing Hayek here)

    The difference is that we believe this should be limited to truly insurable risks. It is a way for the state to provide greater security while stopping short of infringing on individual freedom. To return to Hayek for a moment: “Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.”

    Concerning the ridiculous straw man of roads, bridges, sewers and other infrastructure, where do you find anyone saying that isn’t a proper role of government? That is exactly what government is supposed to do, as long as the infrastructure is designed for the common good and not to the benefit of any particular group or entity.

    If liberals refuse to educate themselves to the basic principles of what conservatism and liberalism are, it will be very difficult to have intelligent conversations on any of the details.

  19. ” Concerning the ridiculous straw man of roads, bridges, sewers and other infrastructure, where do you find anyone saying that isn’t a proper role of government?

    The point of bringing up these and other issues not to state that anyone is arguing that government shouldn’t do those things (although there are some libertarians who argue for privatized roads), but rather when we seek to evaluate the degree to which any given person is able to succeed or not, we have to take into account the context.

    In other words (and to get back to your own comments in other threads about “producers” and “leeches”) there seems to be a mythos subscribed to by many that the successful succeed wholly on their own. This is simply not the case, as the examples of roads, bridges, sewers, public education, health and safety standards, the FDIC, and a raft other thing illustrate.

    Indeed, when you dichotomize between “central planning and the free market” you appear to be subscribing to that mythos.

  20. jwest says:

    Steven,

    Are you willing to make an argument that ObamaCare, the UAW bailout, the bank bailout, and everything concerning “green energy” isn’t central planning?

    Aren’t all these examples of bending laws in order to determine winners and losers?

  21. Scott says:

    “However, what I am more concerned with is that number of citizens who swallow whole what politicians (and pundits) say.”

    This worries me greatly. On the topic of this article, there can certainly be a debate on what the size and role of government should be. But when a large number of people believe lowering taxes will increase revenues it’s a pointless discussion. But that’s the conservative dogma these days and good luck trying to convince them otherwise. And that is just one small example. Propaganda works.

  22. jwest says:

    Steven,

    Government, in its proper role, promotes the general welfare of the citizens by organizing the building of infrastructure for the use of everyone. If an individual uses that infrastructure in a productive fashion and obtains a degree of wealth because of it, it does not mean that those who didn’t use the infrastructure are entitled to a share of that wealth.

  23. oricowits says:

    So someone wanting to keep what they may have worked long and hard for is now ‘un-american’? No wonder there is a divide. We have reached a point in this country where people who can hardly swim are being ‘asked’ to jump in the raging river to save the drowning man. It is very easy for the olympic swimmer nowhere near the raging river to say ‘sure, jump in there, we have to try and save him”.

  24. @jwest:

    Just to try and zero in on common language:

    1. Don’t all laws, sort by definition, define winners and losers to one degree or another? I am not sure what that has to do, per se, with “central planning’ unless all federal laws are “central planning.”

    2. Would you consider the mortgage interest deduction to be “central planning”? How about food and drug safety regulations?

  25. jwest says:

    Steven,

    In the quest for common definitions, I don’t believe all laws constitute central planning. Most laws are the codification of general principles that we, as a society, have agreed to live by. One of the sets of laws that were constructed for the common good are the business bankruptcy laws.

    Taken as written and intended, these laws provide for the orderly disposition of businesses that, for whatever reason are no longer viable. Applied evenly and fairly, the system works fine with all businesses being equal in the eyes of the law.

    When the system is perverted, as it was with the UAW bailout, the laws are twisted, people are coerced and threatened, other business are denied what by law they are entitled to, special groups are protected from adverse actions and the foundation of rule of law is shaken. Government, acting in a central planning capacity, decides that the rules apply to everyone else but not in this one, politically advantageous situation.

    My definition of central planning in this instance was the decision by the government to circumvent the rule of law in order to benefit a particular group or entity. I will allow (in order to avoid the argument) that this circumvention was done with the best intentions with the only goals being the savings of jobs and to help the overall economy. However, it is a clear case of central planning in order to determine winners and losers.

  26. My definition of central planning in this instance was the decision by the government to circumvent the rule of law in order to benefit a particular group or entity.

    This strikes me as an odd definition of “central planning”–at a minimum it is not the common usage. It is also a rather limiting one, as it would only apply to illegal (or, at least, extralegal actions).

    Based on that definition, nothing the Congress does can be central planning (even what I would consider central planning, such as establishing how many MP3 players will be allowed in the market and what their price ought to be). I mean, by definition a legitimate change in the law or the creation of a new law cannot be a ” decision by the government to circumvent the rule of law” because if Congress legitimately passes a law, that is rule of law.

  27. jwest says:

    Steven,

    In my example of the UAW bailout, it can’t be denied that the government circumvented the bankruptcy laws in order to benefit union members. This was central planning by the government – a conscious decision made by the authorities in order to influence the outcome of a certain economic situation involving private entities.

    Does it have to happen with a Russian accent before you admit it was central planning?

  28. jwest:

    I am more than willing to agree that there a far set of problems to be associated with the entire bailout process, and not just the elements associated with the automobile industry. There were some question actions, for example, with the way TARP funds were spent.

    However, you’ve gone from arguing a very general proposition (i.e., central planning v.the free market) to a critique of a specific set of actions.

    While I will readily concede problems with the bailouts, the notion that a specific response in the context of an economic crisis equals “central planning” is problematic.

    Your evocation of the Russian accent in telling, because the Soviet model, and their vaunted Five Year Plans (the very epitome of central planning) was an attempt to determine price, production, wages and so forth for an entire economy. That is a far cry from a specific set of policies on a limited portion of the economy in the context of trying to avert a depression.

    One can argue about the wisdom, and the execution, of those policies, but it is still not central planning in the way you are suggesting (which, btw, doesn’t even seem to fit the definition you yourself offered).

  29. mantis says:

    jwest keeps referring to the “UAW bailout” when no such thing exists or has existed. The government never bailed out the United Auto Workers. The government did keep major American car companies afloat when they were in danger of collapsing. This benefited the entire American auto industry, from auto manufacturers to parts suppliers to mechanics to car dealers. Most of those people are not union employees.

    By dishonestly framing the government action as a “bailout” of his preferred boogeyman, the unions, jwest revises history to his own perverted liking, where a communist president gives gifts to his union buddies. The reality is quite far from that, but it reveals a couple things about jwest’s thinking. First, it shows that he doesn’t have the intellectual ability to honestly argue his points, so he must construct a straw boogeyman (unions) to attack. Second, it shows that he thinks that even in an economic crisis, when the survival of an entire American industry is threatened, he thinks the government has no cause to act.

    He also still has no clue what central planning, or more accurately, a planned economy, is. He just thinks it’s government action he doesn’t like. Why bother having a serious argument with someone who starts from such an ignorant position, which he has shown will never move from?

  30. Trumwill says:

    In other words: if citizens in one part of the country are being burned, flooded or whatever we end up being Americans more than Texans, Floridians, etc. The focus, to be clear, is one the people and not the lines on the map.*

    We also leaped to the aid of the Japanese. And if something disastrous happened in Canada, we’d be there to help if needed (and, I’d like to think, vice-versa). Are we more quick to help fellow Americans? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that the states are not distinct political entities.

    Not as autonomous as nations, for sure, and not as distinct between one another as nations are between one another, but both in terms of our federalist system and in terms of the way a lot of people think, the states are more than the people that reside in them. The people within them form their own consensuses, have their own priorities, and their own governments that operate differently from one another.

    I make this point because many of the discussions (especially from people who extol the Senate as the pinnacle of the Founders’ innovations, or who want to repeal the 17th Amendment) like to speak in terms of states as though they are something other than places where American citizens live.

    Repealing the 17th amendment (which I don’t support) is less radical than what you want to do. One major difference is that we lived for over well over 100 years. Your change is simply based on what you see the states as being. Not that your view is wrong (though I disagree with it), but it’s a view that the federal government does not and never has operated under. While maybe it should, it’s not the case that those that think otherwise simply “don’t get it.”

  31. @Trumwill:

    You are going to have to fill me in on what it is that I want to do, as I don’t see any prescriptions here, but rather a description of what is.

  32. And BTW, there really isn’t much of an analogy to Japan, which is a situation of, for the sake of simplicity, charity. In the case of formal declarations of emergency by the president we are talking about legal obligations wherein the federal government is bound to come to the aid of citizens of the United States.

  33. Trumwill says:

    You are going to have to fill me in on what it is that I want to do,

    Not here, but elsewhere I thought that you had supported reforming the senate. My apologies if I am mistaken about that.

    In the case of formal declarations of emergency by the president we are talking about legal obligations wherein the federal government is bound to come to the aid of citizens of the United States.

    These are legalities. I was discussing mindsets. We help out or fellow man and such. From a legal standpoint, if we sign a mutual defense pact with another country, so that if they are invaded we must intervene, does the distinction between us and them become meaningless (merely “residents of America” and “residents of the United Kingdom”).

    To be clear, I am not arguing that states are nations, but that despite the fact that we have an umbrella government, it doesn’t mean that the states aren’t distinct political entities (from one another and from the umbrella government) and not merely places where people live.

  34. Trumwill says:

    Most Republican states couldn’t survive economically without constant massive income transfers from wealthy Democratic states like New York and California.

    Rather than implode into chaos and destitution, it’s more likely that their governments would either spend less* or tax more.

    * – Much of the money that goes to these states (or any states, really) goes towards things that they wouldn’t buy if it were their own money. Maybe it’s hypocritical that they just take the money anyway, but it’s no less hypocritical than someone who thinks taxes should be higher or that there should be fewer deductions but nonetheless takes all of the deductions they are legally required to.

  35. @Trumwill,

    Yes, I have, in other places, declared sympathy for reforming the Senate–although that doesn’t really have anything to do, per se, with this post.

    And I agree that the states are distinct political entities. However, I remain unsure of your point as it pertains to this post.

  36. Trumwill says:

    It pertains to the portion of your post referring to states as nothing but “places where American citizens live.”

  37. @Trumwill:

    It pertains to the portion of your post referring to states as nothing but “places where American citizens live.”

    Gotcha.

    The things is, for many purposes, that is precisely what states are. To wit: currency, federal income taxes, wars and the like. And, indeed, ultimately that is what they are in terms of federal disaster relief. For other things, like driver’s licenses and basic law and order they are more than just places where people live. Of course, all of it is under the ultimate authority of the US Constitution and federal laws. This is the nature of federalism.