Thursday, December 16, 2010

In Praise of Big Government

Architecture of PowerArchitecture of Power, Hong Kong, 2010

Government isn't looking too spiffy lately.

The cleanup of the great financial crisis of 2008 has people rioting in the streets in Greece and Italy, with Spaniards and Irish not much more cheerful. Germans are bitter about footing the bill. The USA appears unable to pull out of its imperial death spiral. Ethnic riots are simmering in Moscow. And, of course, the documents released to and by Wikileaks are making the whole exercise look rather ridiculous—with the thuggish overreaction of supposedly democratic and law-based governments around the world not exactly helping.

It's tempting to give an ear to your inner Reagan, and decide that government itself is the problem. This would be a grave mistake. Small government almost invariably means bad government, and bad government is bad for everybody.

Rule of law is an expensive, cumbersome, and tedious undertaking. You need a body of law that's coherent and understandable enough to be workable. You need a legislative process that's transparent and participatory enough to make the laws adaptable to a changing world while keeping them in touch with generally accepted ideas of right and wrong. You need a multi-tiered court system with due process and right of appeal. You need a civil service that's big enough and capable enough to apply political decisions. You need oversight for that civil service. You need a police force that's big enough and capable enough to enforce laws and keep order. And you need the whole shebang to function at a level of corruption that's low enough not to completely subvert the process.

Rule by fiat or terror is far less resource-intensive. If laws are made by a dictator and his executive committee, enforced by a sheriff with the discretion to shoot lawbreakers on sight, and the other functions of government performed by a skeleton crew of bureaucrats paid little or not at all, you barely need any taxation to fund it, since you can dispense with all of the heavy machinery of rule of law. Unfortunately, such systems are only tolerable for the rare and short periods of time that the individuals crewing that ship of state are capable, non-corrupt, and genuinely willing to serve the people. Usually that only happens in wartime, and rarely even then. That's a heavy price to pay.

The usual result of small government is corrupt and inefficient government. Underpaid civil servants with insufficient oversight will find more power concentrated into their hands, which inevitably leads to corruption. An undermanned, underpaid, undertrained police force will attract violent thugs, and will become just one more armed gang among many. The legislative process—whatever it is—will be up for grabs to the highest bidder.

There are plenty of examples of this process, both contemporary and historical, both in terms of comparisons between countries and evolution within countries. That archetypal example of bloated bureaucratic government—imperial Russia—had the smallest civil service by far among European countries of its time, with the other archetypal bureaucratic government—Austria-Hungary—the closest follower. As to evolutionary trends of government being sold off to the highest bidder, you need look no further than the USA of the past 30 years, since Ronald Reagan kicked off the process to dismantle government.

Power begets power. Karl Marx described in detail how this happens in the context of a market economy. His analysis is as pertinent now as it was when he first wrote it. I believe that this is a bigger and more fundamental dynamic than just a feature of capitalism. By definition, power means the ability to alter your circumstances and that of other individuals. That means the ability to alter them to your advantage: to use your power to gain more power. It doesn't really matter what the currency du jour is, gold, pounds sterling, rice, connections, land, or titles; if you have enough, you can use it to get more; if you don't, you're liable to have it taken away from you.

The history of civilization is a history of inequality. Ever since somebody first planted a crop bigger than he needed to feed himself and his family, the surplus has flowed to the very top of the pyramid, with the vast majority of humanity surviving at the subsistence level. The rare and short episodes where the surplus has been distributed even a little more evenly are remembered as golden ages. Archaeologists working in Pompeii just discovered that Roman citizens there ate a varied and sufficient diet, were tall, healthy, and lived to a ripe long age, even if they didn't belong to the richest of the rich.

The rare societies that had or have even slightly less unequal distributions of wealth and power did not happen of their own accord. They were the result of sustained, directed political action, driven by shared ideas about social justice. Without such political will and action, civilizations tend toward extreme inequality. For Marx, the solution to the injustices of capitalism was social revolution. I believe Bernstein hit closer to the mark, when he widened the scope of the solution to include any participatory political activity.

The Roman Republic did not come close to living up to its egalitarian ideals (even restricted to Roman citizens), but panem et circenses did have a real impact, as those Pompeii skeletons show. Yet by modern standards, the Roman effort was crude and superficial; simple redistribution of wealth from the top down, amounting to petty cash for the truly rich and powerful. When Julius Caesar died, he left the significant sum of 500 sestertii to every Roman citizen in his will, and there was plenty left for his heirs.

The only political system discovered to date that has had a deep and structural effect on civilization's trend toward extreme inequality is representational democracy, and that only in its highly evolved state. Popular political participation is a pretty lousy way to select competent leaders, but it can be fairly effective at getting rid of extremely corrupt or incompetent ones. As the unprecedented equality of wealth and power that has existed in much of the so-called "developed" world for the past three-quarters of a century shows, it can serve as an effective counterweight to power's tendency to beget more power. If there is a better way, we have yet to discover it.

While popular political power has waned in the countries that gave it birth, as the system has to a greater or lesser extent been subverted by wielders of economic power, it is far from dead, globally speaking. The poster-boy for this trend would be Luis Inácio Lula da Silva's Brazil. Not only has Brazil under Lula developed economically at an accelerating clip, it has made great improvements in its governmental structure, and the proceeds of the economic growth have been distributed much more equally than we have lately gotten accustomed to seeing. In another generation, the center of power in the Western hemisphere may well shift to the southern half of the double continent, with Brazil in the lead—unless the USA somehow manages to reverse its seemingly inexorable decline. Our grandchildren may well grow up with documentaries about the favelas of Chicago and New York, as impoverished gringos flow south to sweep the streets, mow the lawns, and clean the toilets of the affluent middle classes in Río.

China is no poster-boy for democracy. Yet as paranoid and repressive as its government can show itself to be—with regards to the Dalai Lama or Liu Xiaobo, for example—anyone who has been following developments in it for any amount of time cannot help being struck by the long way it has come since the Cultural Revolution or those awfully crushed nights of hope in Tiananmen Square. It's not that long ago that traveling to China was just about as exotic, controlled, and rare as traveling to North Korea nowadays, and any Chinese overseas would have been Guomindang refugees, Taiwanese, or from Hong Kong. I see no reason to think that this trend won't continue. The forms political participation will take in China will very likely owe more to Master Kung than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but it is already happening, at all levels.

Government is a messy business. It is inefficient, corruptible, and murky, and it deals with that most toxic of substances, power. Julien Assange's crusade serves a vital purpose in shining a light on that mess, whatever his motives are. Secrets will always be needed too, but I'm pretty certain that what we're seeing now is mild stuff; the real wet work of diplomacy is done by pouch, courier, and conversation, not cabled routine reports. As citizens, it is incumbent upon us to keep our government as honest and capable as we're able. Wikileaks can help us do that. Becoming cynical about the value of government itself would be a grave mistake and a tragedy, and would only let corruption and abuse of power deepen their roots.

To create a society that does not follow the near-universal law of concentration of power is a choice. To accomplish that, we need rule of law, and for that, we need big, messy, heavy, cumbersome government. We also need whistleblowers, troublemakers, protesters, voters, strikers, labor unions, anarchists, punk rockers, poets, and artists to keep it honest. The alternative is an inexorable slide to corruption, tyranny, and extremes of wealth and poverty. There is no magic in the marketplace or anywhere else that would avoid it. Only hard work can do that.

Government is the problem. It is also the solution. Oh, and, guns are a lousy guarantor of liberty. In this matter at least, the keyboard really is mightier.

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