Commentary: When government fails it tends to expand even faster
WASHINGTON -- August is upon us, beaches beckon, and Michele Bachmann has set the self-improvement bar high. She recently told The Wall Street Journal, "When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring von Mises." The congresswoman may be the first person ever to dribble sun lotion on the section of Ludwig von Mises' "Human Action" wherein the Austrian economist (1881-1973) discussed "the formal and aprioristic character of praxeology."
Autodidacts less exacting than Bachmann should spill sand on the pages of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America" by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch. These incurably upbeat journalists with Reason magazine believe that not even government, try as it will, can prevent onrushing social improvement.
"Confirmation bias" is the propensity to believe news that confirms our beliefs. Gillespie and Welch say "existence bias" disposes us to believe that things that exist always will. The authors say that the most ossified, sclerotic sectors of American life -- politics and government -- are about to be blown up by new capabilities, especially the Internet, and the public's wholesome impatience that is encouraged by them.
"Think of any customer experience that has made you wince or kick the cat. What jumps to mind? Waiting in multiple lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Observing the bureaucratic sloth and lowest-common-denominator performance of public schools, especially in big cities. Getting ritually humiliated going through airport security. Trying desperately to understand your doctor bills. Navigating the permitting process at your local city hall. Wasting a day at home while the gas man fails to show up. Whatever you come up with, chances are good that the culprit is either a direct government monopoly (as in the providers of K-12 education) or a heavily regulated industry or utility where the government is the largest player (as in health care)."
Since 1970, per pupil real, inflation-adjusted spending has doubled and the teacher-pupil ratio has declined substantially. But math and reading scores are essentially unchanged, so we are spending much more to achieve the same results. America has the shortest school year in the industrial world, an academic calendar -- speaking of nostalgia -- suited to an America when children were needed on the farms and ranches in the late spring and early autumn. "No other industry," Gillespie and Welch write, "still adheres to a calendar based on 19th-century agricultural cycles -- even agriculture has given up that schedule."
In the 1950s, A&P supermarkets (remember them? You probably don't) had a 75 percent market share. What used to be the General Motors Building near Central Park South has an Apple store where the automobile showroom once was. When Kodak loses customers, it withers.
But when government fails, it expands even faster. This is, Gillespie and Welch say, because "politics is a lagging indicator of change," a sector of top-down traditions increasingly out of step with today's "bottom-up business and culture" of: "You want soy with that decaf mocha frappuccino?"
A generation that has grown up with the Internet "has essentially been raised libertarian," swimming in markets, which are choices among competing alternatives.
And the left weeps. Preaching what has been called nostalgianomics, liberals mourn the passing of the days when there was one phone company, three car companies, three television networks, an airline cartel, and big labor and big business were cozy with big government.
The America of one universally known list of Top 40 records is as gone as records. When the Census offered people the choice of checking the "multiracial" category, Maxine Waters, then chairing the Congressional Black Caucus, was indignant: "Letting individuals opt out of the current categories just blurs everything." This is the voice of reactionary liberalism: No blurring, no changes, no escape from old categories, spin the world back to the 1950s.
"Declaration of Independents" is suitable reading for this summer of debt-ceiling debate, which has been a proxy for a bigger debate, which is about nothing less than this: What should be the nature of the American regime? America is moving in the libertarians' direction not because they have won an argument but because government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous. This has, however, opened minds to the libertarians' argument.
The essence of which is the commonsensical principle that before government interferes with the freedom of the individual, and of individuals making consensual transactions in markets, it ought to have a defensible reason for doing so. It usually does not.
George Will's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.