Posts tagged with: government

In today’s commentary, Sam Gregg writes that “there is little reason to be optimistic about the probable effects of the Obama Administration’s interventionist approach to mortgage relief. In fact, it is most likely to be counterproductive.” More government complacency about moral hazard?

Read the commentary at the Acton Website and share your comments below.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Friday, February 27, 2009

Somewhere in the United States today, government officials are writing a plan that will profoundly affect other people’s lives, incomes, and property. Though it may be written with the best intentions, the plan will go horribly wrong. The costs will be far higher than anticipated, the benefits will prove far smaller, and various unintended consequences will turn out to be worse than even the plan’s critics predicted.

That’s the first paragraph of Randal O’Toole’s wonderful book, The Best Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

It’s not a new book (2007), but it is timely, for reasons that should be obvious. O’Toole’s prime example is the US Forest Service, which he investigated on behalf of environmental groups for many years. From there he moves on to land use and transportation, churning through a number of sub-topics along the way. You might expect the book to be a polemic, but it isn’t. O’Toole is a careful researcher and he gives public employees their due. He simply lays out in devastating detail the impossibility of the tasks set before government planners, especially when it comes to long-term agendas of five or ten years. A refreshingly sensible analysis of senseless bureaucratic bungling.

In response to the question, “What are the moral lessons of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)?”

Does the ARRA mark the dawn of a new era of government accountability, from a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”?

President Obama seems to think so. He says as much in a video statement tied to the launch of Recovery.gov, “a website that lets you, the taxpayer, figure out where the money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is going.”

The site claims that “the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be carried out with full transparency and accountability — and Recovery.gov is the centerpiece of that effort.”

In his brief statement, President Obama says, “The size and scale of this plan demand unprecedented efforts to root out waste, inefficiency, and unnecessary spending.”



Your Money at Work from White House on Vimeo.

Call me cynical, but somehow I doubt that a package that was rushed through without time for reflection and public examination is going to ex post facto become accountable to the people.

Let’s just say that if the “transparency” of the way the TARP funds have been distributed and used is any model for what’s going to happen with ARRA, we’ll be a long way from a new era of government accountability. Recovery.gov looks a lot more like window dressing, or better yet an arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic after the ship has already sailed.

Government is most surely a divinely-ordained reality, and a blessing that we must celebrate. But governments realize their task when they recognize their own divinely-ordained limits.

Government exists as a form of common grace to preserve the world for Christ’s coming, when the government as an order of preservation will give way to a divine monarchy (“Every knee will bow.”). In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the government is here to keep “open” the orders of the world for Christ.

But when government oversteps this mandate, it tyrannizes the other orders of preservation and undermines the basis for its own existence. It then becomes a force for destruction as much as for preservation.

In addition to strident debate and firm resolution in public affairs, satire is a powerful tool in calling the government to heed its limits. It is in this spirit that the following two items are offered.

First, “The Heaviest Element Known to Science.”

Lawrence Livermore Laboratories has discovered the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert; however, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take from 4 days to 4 years to complete. Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2-6 years. It does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium’s mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as critical morass. When catalysed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium, an element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

And second,


As Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” a basic task of the church is to “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e. as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.” In so doing, the church shows itself to be the state’s “most faithful servant.”

After all, pointing out the excesses, sins, and errors of another can be the most sublime act of love.

I’m ambivalent about the value of term limits, but one thing that can certainly be counted in their favor is that they (at some point at least), force lawmakers to go out and try to make a living in the economic environment which they helped to shape. In Michigan, nearly half of the 110-member House of Representatives will consist of new members. Of the 46 new members, 44 are coming from seats that were open because of term limits.

And now we have reports that ex-legislators are having a tough time finding private sector jobs in the state. As the AP reports, “The task of finding new gigs will be tougher than usual for this year’s crop of term-limited lawmakers because of Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate, which in November reached 9.6 percent — the highest monthly rate since March 1992.”

It’s been said that those who can’t do, teach. But sometimes those who can’t do, legislate. That’s in part an argument in favor term-limits, part-time legislatures, and something other than a system that encourages the formation of career politicians.

I recognize that serving in government is an important and even a divine calling. Still, I have a hard time finding a great deal of sympathy for those who after a break from the private sector have to face up to the real-world employment situation. You reap what you sow.

I cannot tell you how many times Catholics have used “the common good” as an excuse for more government involvement in peoples’ lives and the installing of socialistic, “spread the wealth” programs. This version of the common good is the foundation for some people’s idea of distributive justice, but actually it is based on the “Robin Hood fallacy” of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

How did I come to this conclusion? I did so merely by reading Aristotle and St. Thomas. Both of those great thinkers say that government must rule for the common good, but both of them oppose “common good” to the “particular” or “private” good. This means, as Aristotle writes, that any law must be good for not a ruler alone, or his cronies, or even the majority, but for the state as a whole. To use the analogy Plato makes in the Statesman, a physician gives a medicine to a sick person even if the sick person finds it distasteful. When he leaves the scene, he leaves behind a prescription containing his instructions. The instructions are not for his good, or the family’s benefit, but for the health of the sick person. BUT . . . nowhere in Aristotle or St. Thomas does it say that the common good is the exclusive or even main province of the government. They merely give a negative prohibition that the state cannot make laws which are good for only one segment of society.

The Church, as opposed to some Catholic writers, recognizes this. The Church holds to the principle of subsidiarity, originally enunciated by Leo XIII and actually named as such by Pius XI. Firstly, this principle states that nothing should be done by a higher level of society that can be done by a lower level. This means that, say, in my profession, the professor in the classroom is presumed to be doing his job unless some serious problem arises. His department chairman is not to be breathing down his neck and nitpicking his work. Certainly, the chairman’s boss, the dean, has no business butting into the professor’s work. If a problem arises, and the dean hears about it, he should ask the chairman to investigate it and take care of it, assuming the chairman has not done so already, which is an unlikely assumption. Secondly, the principle of subsidiarity says that nothing should be done by a government agency that can be done by a private agency. This means that government is a last resort, when all private possibilities are exhausted and the problem is a serious violation of justice or something that only a government can resolve, like an invasion.

Take a look at how Vatican II defines the common good: “The common good of society consists in the sum total of those conditions of social life which enable men to achieve a fuller measure of perfection with greater ease. It consists especially in safeguarding the rights and duties of the human person.” The fact that the Church does not have a list of specific positive programs here is that it is clearly stressing the notion that the common good is a “habitat” in which the human person can flourish. The onus is on the person to do the flourishing, with the assistance of the spontaneous institutions arising in a free society which are there for that purpose. On the other side of the coin, the onus is also on the individual to make sure that his fellows have that environment to flourish, with the government as a last resort remedy for that which individuals and social groups cannot do to provide that habitat.

Therefore, we can conclude with Bertrand de Jouvenel that a healthy society has many social organizations, and that the role of these groups should not be usurped by government. If government participates in this usurpation, it is rejecting the human person’s duty and ability to help himself and his brothers and sisters. Remember what we wrote about John Paul II and personal responsibility? (Maybe you should review it). Personal responsibility is founded on self-governance and self-governance leads to self-determination. Surely, self-governance of a social being like man leads him to take responsibility for the success of ourselves and of our fellows who cannot succeed by themselves, but it should never substitute for the action of the persons themselves. Neither should government. Nor should the citizens demand that government take over the responsibility for themselves or their fellows, except when they CANNOT succeed in doing so. Not only does this have dire consequences, which are not part of this essay, but—and this is the most important reason—it violates the person’s dignity.

Read more from Dr. Luckey at “Catholic Truths on Economics.”

There’s a good read from a state politician familiar with Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Detroit mayor accused of all manner of illicit activity, in the Sep. 12 newsletter (PDF) from Michigan state senator Mickey Switalski (D-Roseville). Switalski’s newsletter is one of the best and is atypical among state politicians, because he writes the content himself.

Before his current run as a state senator, Switalski was a state representative during Kilpatrick’s tenure as Democratic Floor Leader, the #2 position in the Democratic caucus. In his piece on Kilpatrick, Switalski offers what you might expect to be a sympathetic perspective, given their time spent as colleagues and their shared party affiliation (I spent a semester as a legislative intern for then-Representative Switalski in the spring of 2000). Yet Switalski offers what I think is a fair and balanced assessment, based on his judgment that Kilpatrick “is a complex person with many strengths and some tragic weaknesses.”

“The Rise and Fall of Kwame Kilpatrick” is a narrative embodying the wisdom of Lord Acton’s dictum that “power tends to corrupt.” Switalski gives us an inside look at state politics, describing the legislature as “an insane asylum,” given the turbulent dynamics at the time. But Kilpatrick was a voice of reason and stability during the ravages of partisan bickering.

Ultimately Switalski judges that Kilpatrick “had too much power too early. He indulged his prodigious appetites and lacked the maturity and judgment to control his desires and became corrupt.”

Switalski wonders, “Were these faults always there?”

“I suppose they were,” he answers.

But how could a man who saw public service with such clarity in 2000 become so blind and ethically lost just a few years later? It is a sad tale, both for him and for the City. Unlike many people I know, who seemed to relish in his failure, I took no joy in watching him self-destruct. It was an awful waste of talent and opportunity. It was a tragedy for the City and the Region.

I pray his successors will not let power lead them into temptation, and so avoid a similar fate.

Switalski is correct to point to the tragedy of the demise of Kwame Kilpatrick, and that we should always realize the danger that power presents and the responsibility that it entails.

Even those who recognize, as Kwame did, that politicians have a duty to their constituents and “doing good policy for the people we serve” can be corrupted by the illusions of power and the delusions of privilege.

The eighth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The eighth and penultimate leg of the journey took the bikers from Grand Rapids to St. Catharines, Ontario, a total distance of 410 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,451 miles.

The CRC is a bi-national church, and while the denominational headquarters are located in Grand Rapids, a significant portion of the church’s membership is Canadian. This is something that I’ve always appreciated and is somewhat rare among Protestant denominations that tend to break down along national lines. Even though there is a great deal of cultural affinity between these North American countries, I think the bi-nationality of the CRC adds an element of internationalism that can help offset the natural tendency to identify the church’s interest with a particular national or domestic setting. The gospel is not confined to the US or to North America.

Unfortunately, the day 52 devotion in the “Shifting Gears” devotional falls flat in offering an “internationalist” perspective. It asks, rhetorically I presume, “Why are billions budgeted for defense and border protection, when we can’t come up with the money to supply mosquito nets for Africa? Why do some governments use their national borders as a wall to hide the injustice and persecution occurring within? Why is it so easy for the powerful to cross borders, but not the poor?” There’s no denying there is great injustice on the international scene related to the strictures of immigration and barriers to trade.

But the first question in this series illustrates a presumption that it is the government’s duty to provide mosquito nets for Africa at the expense of national defense. This, quite simply, is a confusion that is endemic to the perspective of progressive Christianity…that the government, and not the church or other institutions of civil society, is primarily responsible for addressing the problem of poverty.

In the words of Jim Wallis, “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.” Wallis is fond of talking about the perceived limits of private and church action. But what are the limits of government action? And why can’t the church do much more beyond mere political advocacy? Ron Sider thinks it can, and I agree. It says a lot about you if you are more willing to put your trust in a secular government than in the church of Christ.

Awhile back I considered the amount of money churches spend on building projects in North America. I discussed a a modest proposal: churches should consider tithing the amount they spend on “themselves” and give a portion of the building fund away to other Christian causes.

These kinds of efforts are catching on. Just this weekend I read a piece about a local church which committed 10% of its $1.1 million building fund to other charity work. I wrote more about this in a 2006 commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship.”

One of the entries in the devotional for this week does the best job I’ve seen so far linking and properly coordinating the physical and spiritual concerns of the gospel. Taking its point of departure in the imagery of physical and spiritual imprisonment, the day 51 devotion concludes, “Enjoy the physical freedom of cycling today, and pray for a deeper, richer understanding of God’s mercy–mercy he shows to all who acknowledge their imprisonment in disobedience and who seek freedom in Christ alone.”

Earlier this week the Detroit News reported (HT: Pew Forum) that supporters of Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and Republican candidate for this election’s presidential nomination, would be meeting with representatives of John McCain in the key swing state of Michigan. Among the “battleground” states, Obama holds his largest lead in the polls here in Michigan (RCP average of +3.2).

The purpose of yesterday’s meetings was ostensibly to urge McCain to pass over Mitt Romney as a possible running mate, in the interests of courting social conservatives. Debra Matney, a Huckabee supporter from Fairgrove who helped organize the meetings, said of McCain, “Who he chooses will speak volumes to us.”

It’s unclear, however, what effect meetings of this kind might have, as an interview with McCain published yesterday in the Weekly Standard has McCain saying that he would not rule out a pro-choice running mate like Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge.

That fact alone ought to speak volumes to social conservatives.

Meanwhile, since his withdrawal from the presidential race, Mike Huckabee has done his best to remain in the national conversation. In a recent interview with Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Huckabee had this to say about the tension in the GOP between social and fiscal conservatism:

Wallis: You’ve talked about public responsibility alongside personal responsibility to overcome poverty. What’s a proper role for government?

Huckabee: One of the things I’m frustrated about is that Republicans have been infiltrated by hardcore libertarians. Traditional Republicans don’t hate all forms of government. They just want it to be efficient and effective. They recognize that it has a place and a role.

Growing numbers of people in the Republican Party are just short of anarchists in the sense that they basically say, “Just cut government and cut taxes.” They don’t understand that if you do that, there are certain consequences that do not help problems. It exacerbates them.

Every law and every government program we have is a direct indictment and reflection that somewhere we’ve failed at the personal level to self-govern. The ideal world is where everybody self-governs and lives by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If we all abided by that, we would need no other law. No one would hurt anybody. Nobody would get drunk. Nobody would abuse the speed limits. Nobody would drop out of school. It would be a great world. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that.

I go to a church that feeds a whole lot of people. Some kids still slip through the cracks that my church or somebody else’s isn’t getting to. I could be an ideological purist and say, “That’s not government’s responsibility.” But I’m also a realist, and when all of the other social structures fail—whether family, neighborhood, community, or charity organizations—then we have by default created a demand for government to step in.

I get beat up for this terribly by the libertarians in the party. I call them libertarians and not conservatives, because I think I’m a conservative but I’m not a nut! They ask me if I want government to engage in all these social programs. No, it’s not my preference. But if my choice is that government has a program or a kid goes hungry, then give me the government program. I prefer that over a hungry child. I prefer that over a child that’s wheezing through untreated asthma.

If people out of generosity can do this beyond the scope of government, praise the Lord! But when they don’t, then it’s no different than all the nice conservatives in the gated neighborhoods who really don’t want any government until their home is broken into and they call 911. That’s a call to government. And then they want that person in prison for a long time. If we want smaller government and lower taxes, the best way to get there is to create a more civil social structure in which people play by the rules and self-govern.

There’s a lot of wisdom in what Huckabee says here. And that interview is worth reading in its entirety, not only because it’s a pretty candid look at Huckabee’s positions, but also because it shows what many of Jim Wallis’ assumptions are concerning the role of church and government.

I’ve written before about the incompatibility of anarcho-capitalism and the Christian faith, and I think Huckabee is on to something here. The problem, as I see it, has a good deal to do with the adoption of libertarianism as a comprehensive world-and-life view, and not just a political philosophy applicable to limited spheres of human existence. When your political philosophy becomes the be-all and end-all of your worldview, you run into real problems, and that’s what I think Huckabee means by “hardcore libertarians.” Under such ideological illusions you can’t, for instance, deal adequately with the reality of positive social responsibilities that exist between persons. Political liberty becomes an end in itself, and not something, as Lord Acton would have it, that must be oriented towards a higher moral, social, and spiritual good.

That isn’t to say that varieties of libertarianism or classical liberalism that don’t assume the government to be something to be done away with, or that limit themselves to asking questions about the efficiency of political economy, don’t have a good deal to teach us. But Huckabee’s position is worth engaging, I think, if only because it resembles that of Abraham Kuyper, who in the same address could say both that “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior,” and, “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”

I’ve noted this quote on the blog before, but Ray’s post on professionalism sparked recall of another kind of professional, the professional bureaucratic manager:

Government insists more and more that its civil servants themselves have the kind of education that will qualify them as experts. It more and more recruits those who claim to be experts into its civil service. And it characteristically recruits too the heirs of the nineteenth-century reformers. Government itself becomes a hierarchy of bureaucratic managers, and the major justification advanced for the intervention of government in society is the contention that government has resources of competence which most citizens do not possess. –Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2d ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 85.

Call them what you will; planners, bureaucratic managers, government professionals, it all amounts to the same thing in the end, I think. And Lord Acton’s observation about bureaucracy is relevant here as well: “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power.”