A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


What does the government do better than you?

This question was brought to the front of my attention by a recent essay in The American Prospect. Monica Potts responds to Paul Ryan's philosophy of government:

The conservative approach to government stems from a basic tenet of free-market economics: that people always act rationally to maximize their own benefits, and that from this rises a general state of well-being for society as a whole. But this isnt always true. One of the hottest academic disciplines to arise in the last few decades is behavioral economics, which explores the ways in which people behave irrationally. In addition, easy-predictable problems with certain markets prevent us from achieving the best outcomes. These two facts have consequences for how we should think about government in certain instances. There are many ways in which the government can make better decisions with our money than we can, and there are many ways that the Ryan budget would make society worse off by getting rid of government programs.

She goes on to explain her top-five list, which you'll have to go there to read. But I would add one more thing big government is good for. And to my mind, it is the clearest and most pressing one of all. But first, back to college for a minute.

It is a testament to my undergraduate professor of Political Theory, John Roos (now emeritus) that I remember the contents of the final exam I wrote for him. Of course, the main reason I remember it is that I had overslept and missed the exam I was supposed to take. So the professor had to improvise with my exam. He sat me in his office, clearly flustered that I had overslept, but pondering what would be merciful and fair in my situation.

He handed me a blue book and said, "OK, there's been a coup and another of the Yugoslavian states has successfully seceded. You're a famous professor of political theory and they bring you in to help them construct their new government. What do you tell them? You have three hours. My grad student will sit here while you write." (The grad student was not pleased with this decision.)

I wrote that the primary principle of government is to preserve as much individual liberty as possible, while still actively promoting a common set of public goods. In theory, everyone wants minimal government. The debates are about what counts as minimal.

With Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan, we have a faint chance for this debate to happen over the next two months. Most of us have grown skeptical of our electorate's ability to have such a debate, but the opportunity is here in a way it hasn't been for several elections. Many of the speeches at the Republican National Convention, such as Gov. Chris Christie's last night, will focus on individual liberty vs. big government (or "coddling" government, as he termed it last night).

When I think back on my exam answer, I know most of it was boilerplate stuff -- not A material. The government should provide some military, roads, sanitation, police, fire departments, primary and secondary education, and so on, I wrote. My government for hypothetical Slavinostia looked a lot like a center-right American administration. I was tired, not remembering the finer points of Rousseau, and fell back on the political theory that I knew from just living in America. Not even B material.

But there was one breakthrough moment, one which I carried forward in life and has affected all of my voting since. I ended up writing a large portion of the exam about the necessity of environmental protection at the federal level. Many environmental problems can and ought to be addressed locally, but some of them simply cannot be. I also argued then off the cuff, and now would do so with much more data and (I hope) sophistication, that individual human beings are almost universally unable to imagine or prevent our large-scale effects on the global ecosystem. We don't comprehend the scale of our effects; and we don't muster the will power to change our behavior. We have entered the "anthropocene" era of planet "Eaarth," as Bill McKibben has renamed our beleaguered planet.

Environmental regulation is uniquely positioned, then, to both promote the public good and preserve individual liberty in the long term. My center-right government, geared towards liberty, demanded a massive federal regulatory agency. In other words, to maximize liberty in the current era, even a minimal government needs a fierce EPA. In my world, Slavinostia's EPA was going to be its most important federal agency. Its bizarre government looked, in the end, like it was designed by the team of Ronald Reagan and John Muir. (Or maybe something like what David Frum espouses.)

I still agree with my undergraduate self. If I had to pick one thing that big government is good for -- and one which I wish were a larger part of the current debates -- it is environmental protection.



Commenting Guidelines

Potts writes, "Ryans budget would significantly change Social Security by turning it into private accounts for each American worker, making it operate roughly like a 401(k) retirement plan youre automatically enrolled in. People would choose how to invest in the private market for their own retirements. The problem is that, as study after study has shown, people are pretty bad at managing their own retirement savings. "I agree with her diagnosis: a lot of people are really bad at this. I do want to note, though, that she is describing Ryan 1.0; Ryan 2.0 (or perhaps the current iteration is 3.0) allows people to keep traditional social security.

I wonder if this question doesn't have to be broken down in terms of levels of government: local, state, federal? It often seems taken for granted that "government" means federal government.

I agree with you about the government and the environment. The Sierra Club, the heirs of John Muir :), have endorsed Obama ... are things that the government can do that most individuals may not what to do, but which are still right to do ... for instance, the making legal inter-racial marriage. Government can protect the rights of the minority against the majority.

Government can:1. manage inherent monopolies such as electrical utilities.2. Provide police and military forces3 Ensure a stable currency.4. Ensure management of limited resources that are otherwise part of the "commons" such as clean water, clean air and fisheries.5. Manage consumer inspection services, such as weights and measures and food sanitation requirements.6. Regulate drug reasearch and purity7. Regulate collateral aspects of competition, not otherwise accounted for on the competitors books yet reflecting real costs to society such as environmental pollution.8. Provide a system of laws that facilitates free commerce, including dispute resolution and enforcement mechanisms.

I favor Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, something like the ACA, and so on. But (1) it's a false claim that a government-funded program like Social Security will do better than every individual. The most that can be claimed is that it will do better than some people. And (2) it's a false premise that the only choices are between Ryan's proposals and the status quo. There are infinite alternative possibilities, and some of them seem sensible (means-test the programs) and even politically sorta-easy (lift the annual income cap on FICA).The point that underlies a number of Potts' points is that the free market involves risk - uneven outcomes. Converting entitlements to investments means that there will be some winners - comfier retirements, and the ability to will retirement assets to heirs - but there will be some losers, as well. I get this - my retirement savings took a haircut a few years ago, too. Traditional economic theory is that there is nothing less risky than an investment in US debt, and so inasmuch as Social Security and Medicare are backed increasingly by US debt, they seem much less risky than retirement investment programs like 401(k)s and IRAs. The Euro experience is teaching us that even federal government-backed bonds bear some risk, although compared to the alternatives like the stock market, it's still the safest thing out there.

"individual human beings are almost universally unable to imagine or prevent our large-scale effects on the global ecosystem. We dont comprehend the scale of our effects; and we dont muster the will power to change our behavior. "While not necessarily disagreeing with that statement, if human beings are so limited, wouldn't the members of the EPA be similarly limited? Why should the protection of a country's environment be placed in the hands of so few people? Doesn't power corrupt, even when power is in the hands of government bureaucrats? Especially when it is concentrated in the hands of government bureaucrats?Surely it's not just businessmen who do not comprehend the full extent of their actions, and who cannot muster the will power to do the right thing.

@Mark Proska (8/29, 5:16 pm) I recognize this may not be your main point, but when you ask "Doesn't power corrupt", I can't help but think of that good English Catholic, Lord Acton.,_1st_Baron_ActonActon's famous and oft-misquoted dictum, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is of a piece with his opposition to the doctrine of papal infallibility. However, just because power has (or may have) a *tendency* to corrupt does not necessarily mean that power *inevitably* corrupts in all situations.Other regulars here are more theologically knowledgeable than I (so I hope you all will jump in), but as I understand it, Karl Rahner argues that since power (the ability to act) is implicit in the description of God's actions in the Genesis account of Creation, power is more properly thought of as one of God's good gifts to humanity. Like any good gift of God's, it is one that we humans can use, misuse and/or abuse.

Thanks for this post. I don't know if this exactly answers the question in the title, but I think it's a relatively pragmatic list of things that the authors of the US Constitution thought the federal government *needed* to do since neither individuals nor smaller political factions or entities could do them as well: "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity".

Power:"Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them." One of the attributes of power is that it gives those who have it the ability to define reality and the power to make others believe their definition. William Sloan Coffin"Power is nothing more than the intemperate protrusion of the egomaniacal heart. Since all egomaniacs are insecure to their frightened cores, they thus wield power barbarically so the world will not find them out." Dennis Lehane, The Given Day. How often we wish that God would show himself stronger, that he would strike decisively, defeating evil and creating a better world. All ideologies of power justify themselves in exactly this way, they justify the destruction of whatever would stand in the way of progress and the liberation of humanity. We suffer on account of Gods patience. And yet, we need his patience. God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him. The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man. Pope Benedict XVI, Installation Homily, April 24, 2005

who do not comprehend the full extent of their actionsNor do we comprehend our lack of knowledge when making decisions.

@Jim McCrea (8/29, 8:45 pm) Thanks for these quotes. I, for one, would welcome some of your own interpretation of those statements and your own understanding of power.My own understanding, as is perhaps evident above, is that power is, if not a good thing, at a minimum a morally neutral concept. In other words, power as, quite simply, "the ability to act"---an ability that can be used for good or evil purposes.We are often warned of power's tendency to corrupt. We are less often warned of the corrupting influence of powerlessness, which is, it seems to me, at least as important an object of moral reflection.

"We are often warned of powers tendency to corrupt. We are less often warned of the corrupting influence of powerlessness, which is, it seems to me, at least as important an object of moral reflection."Luke, that's a very interesting insight, and I'd like to read more of your thoughts on it (please consider that a request to post something :-)).FWIW, here is the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the topic of authority. It is quite clear that authority is legitimate only to the extent that it serves the common good.

I agree with Jim that an unpacking of Luke's insightful observation on the corrupting influence of [perceived?] powerlessness would be very interesting.

Luke: unless power is (1) granted by those subject to it, (2) subject to retraction by those granting it, and (3) shared horizontally to the extent possible, it is corruptable.Catholics certainly know this way too well. The organizationally powerful are so designated, not elected, by those with the same designated power. It is a self-perpetuating limited society (an ecclesiastical LLC). The extreme verticality of this power renders those subject to it captives, rather than beneficiaries, in way too many cases.Congregationalism has its own problems with power, but those problems tend to be horizontal and correctable issues because of the power of the congregation en toto.

I know this is to be about what government can do for us, but the subject of power arose, so this seque sort of maybe possibly deals with that:Hot off the press ( laity co-responsible in Church30 August 2012Pope Benedict XVI has called on Catholic lay people to see themselves as "co-responsible" for the Church's life and activity rather than mere "collaborators" or co-operators with the ordained clergy."This co-responsibility requires a change in mentality concerning, in particular, the role of the laity in the Church," Pope Benedict wrote in a message to the International Forum of Catholic Action (FIAC).The Pope says "a mature and committed laity" should be able to "make its own specific contribution to the ecclesial mission with respect for the ministries and tasks that each one has in the life of the Church and always in cordial communion with the bishops".In his letter Pope Benedict does not explain how this "co-responsibility" is substantially different from assisting in the work of the priests and the bishops.

Romney tonite sneered at Obama's worrying about the oceans rising..Mitt may lose the GOP environmentalists .. (-:

I'll try to do some more thinking about power over the next few days, and about how to write a post that can serve as an invitation to discussion about it.In the meantime, I'll add one more thought (not original to me in the least). To some extent, we suffer in the English language from a limitation that Spanish (for example) does not have---namely, that the word "power" largely exists only as a noun for us, and not in verb form. (In Spanish, "poder" means both (the noun) power, and (the verb) to be able.)As a result, we may have more of a (largely unconscious) tendency to think of power more as a *thing* that exists outside of and independently from us humans---as opposed to something inherent to human existence, something that is part of our being. Power (in the latter view) isn't something that the government (or the market, or the world) can give to or take from people. Because, as the old saying goes, "if the world didn't give it, the world can't take it away". Power is something we are born with. We are born "able to act", as anyone who's been around a newborn baby knows.None of what I've just said resolves any of the questions about institutions and power that have come up in this thread. But it does offer one way of framing those questions that can, perhaps, shed some new light on the topic.

Mitt may lose the GOP environmentalists .. (-: All 10 of them?See: