Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In Which I Go All Ron Paul On You…

“The federal government (aka Fedzilla) is too big.”

“Government is the problem; not the solution.”

These are tokens of faith among conservatives, especially Tea Partiers, and in almost every Republican race – from the presidential contest on down – candidates trip over themselves listing the federal departments they’d shut down. (Remember Rick Perry’s debate flub when he couldn’t think of the third department he’d eliminate, especially embarrassing for him as a Texan since it was the Department of Energy!)

These folks are almost immediately labeled (explicitly or implicitly) extremists. That’s partly understandable: a lot of them are extremists, whether it’s the Ron Paul “strict interpretation of the Constitution” crowd or the broader category of candidates who simply have an ideological hatred of any government.

But partly it seems to be a gut reaction on the part of the media, liberals and progressives, and a good chunk of the political establishment: “How could you possibly justify closing down part of the government in this day and age?” And that’s a terrible shame because we need to have a conversation about the size and scope of the federal government.

My belief isn’t driven by an ideological dislike of government. I’m a big believer in a balanced economy – the U.S. economy has historically worked best during times of a balanced approach – and I want government to work as effectively as possible. But the federal government is way too big to manage effectively, even with the most competent managers in the world. Furthermore, its budget is so large ($3.6 trillion) and its influence so vast that everyone involved – politicians and civil servants – faces tremendous pressure from those (mostly in the private sector) who either want a piece of the pie or want the government to do (or not do) something that might affect them.

At the end of the day, it’s going to take a constitutional amendment to address the money and power issues (severely restrict the influence of money, introduce publicly funded elections, eliminate gerrymandering, etc.). That’s not likely to happen anytime soon, but in the meantime, we can look at the division of powers and figure out the best approach, using the principle of subsidiarity, which basically says that powers should be handled by the smallest authority that’s competent to perform them. (Read Chapter 11 of Jeffrey Sach’s excellent The Price of Civilization for a good, short overview of this principle.)

So, with this in mind, do we really need a full federal Department of Education (a favorite target of conservatives)? What is there about K-12 education that requires handling at a federal level? Education is mostly run locally so why not leave it there? Let the states address any funding gaps among educational districts.

By the same token, however, there likely should be a federal role in post-secondary education, given how it crosses borders and is such an important part of a nation’s competitiveness. But should this be in a separate department or simply part of the Labor Department, where it could be coordinated with the need for non-college post-secondary education (technical training, apprenticeships, etc. – an area where the U.S. has a lot to learn)?

And what about health care? It’s well known that the best functioning health care systems work at a local level to provide holistic, integrated care. Why create a huge federal bureaucracy? Let the states run it, with the federal role limited to ensuring no gaps in coverage when people move from state to state (assuming we ever actually have universal coverage) and perhaps a funding mechanism to ensure minimum standards.

Of course, if we’re going to have this conversation, it can’t all be about taking powers away from the federal government. Financial regulation comes to mind. We have a ridiculous patchwork of regulatory fiefdoms that dates from well before the modern,  global, highly interconnected financial system. Why do we need insurance regulators in all 50 states, plus by the Federal Reserve, the SEC, the Office of Thrift Supervision, the FDIC, etc.? What is the best and most logical way to regulate finance in today’s world when companies and individuals trade billions of dollars every second?

And right there is the problem: I used the word “logical,” which would rarely be used to describe any current political discussion – unless prefixed by “ideo.” 

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