Friday, September 10, 2010

Government's Poisoned Chalice

The record of the last century is stark. Everything the government has gotten into it has screwed up. Royally.

Want to talk about education? Things are so bad that we are now starting to wonder whether college is really worth it.

Homeownership? Government has been encouraging home ownership for nearly 100 years. The result is that fewer Americans own their own homes than Canadians.

If you look at all the areas of public life that are screwed up, government is in the middle of it. And it all started, in every case, with the best intentions.

Government decided to get involved in education, to educate our children. Yet government has loved education to death. Maybe 150 years ago education was a little rude and crude. But now we incarcerate all our children in government educational facilities complete with metal detectors. It is incredibly expensive yet about 15 percent of adults are "below-basic" in literacy and numeracy. Fifty percent of kids entering college require remedial courses. Government has loved education to death.

A century ago government got interested in homeownership. It pushed lenders to offer riskier loans and then people lost their over-leveraged homes in the Great Depression. It solved that problem by making it even easier to borrow money on a house. The result is a huge overbuilding and overpricing of homes that all came crashing down in the last two years. It has loved home-owners to death.

There are the workers. It was 150 years ago that "educated youth and middle-class intellectuals" got all worked up about the workers. The workers were having a hard time in the middle of the greatest migration ever, from the country to the city. They started suffering and dying in public, while the peasants had been starving for thousands of years in private. So government decided to help the workers. They gave their labor unions special exemption from laws against monopoly, and looked the other way when they descended to thuggery. They stopped child labor. They regulated hours of work. Then they gave the workers "benefits" like health insurance and pensions and unemployment pay. Only the workers didn't own these benefits. They got them from loving politicians. Now the great industrial corporations are dying, throttled by their labor unions and work rules, and government workers are paid 50 or 100 percent more than private sector workers. Government has loved labor to death.

Then there are African Americans. First we enslaved them, then we liberated them, then we Jim Crowed them, then we segregated them, then we integrated them, then we affirmative actioned them. So now about 70 percent of African American children are born to a single parent, and more African American men are in jail than in college. We have loved African Americans to death.

In fact, there's a good argument that when government comes calling with a a communion cup of government spending and political patronage there is only one thing to do. Dash the poisoned chalice to the ground before a drop passes your lips.

There are only two things that government can do. It can do force and it can do compulsion. It amounts to the same thing. If it's a question of forcing a foreign power to respect American power, government can do it, albeit at enormous expense.

If it's a question of beating up rowdy young lower-class males, government can do that too.

But when it comes to making a society, government is helpless. Because society is not a question of force, it is a question of cooperation, of nudging, of influence, of somehow getting people to do the right thing short of forcing them.

In the face-to-face society, we get people to do the right thing with a frown and a shake of the head. Let's check with Rodney Stark in Discovering God.

Social life is only possible to the extent that groups exert social control--collective efforts to ensure conformity to the moral standards of the group... So, from infancy humans are raised to believe that the norms of their group are the "right" way to behave and are trained to conform.

But as society becomes larger we need formal methods of control.

Formal social control is expensive--contrast the cost of dirty looks from neighbors with that of maintaining a police officer.

When humans start living in towns and cities, the detection of violations of moral standards becomes a problem. People can be anonymous in the city, and soon find that nobody will know of their evil misdeeds.

Enter "sin," invented during the Axial Age in the millennium before Christ. It solved the problem of misdeeds in the anonymous city. Your neighbors may not know of your misdeeds, but God will know! God will punish misdeeds, and even if you manage to avoid paying for your misdeeds in this life, God will punish you in the next one. Pretty clever, as long as people believe in God, of course.

Our age is an age that has tried to abolish sin. Of course, it has not worked. In some cases sin has been smuggled in the back door, where "sexual harassment" has replaced the disapproval of the cad. But mostly sin has been replaced with a gigantic government bureaucracy empowered to look into every crevice of your life to detect evildoing.

Bureaucracy is not society. Heavy-handed law enforcement is not a replacement for self-responsible freedom. In life after liberalism we must find a new code so that most of the time social control stops short of force, what we so charmingly call "law enforcement."

Now, I wonder what that might be? I wonder if anyone has invented it already. I wonder if it is working, already, around us every day, only we just don't appreciate it.

What do you think?

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