The Great Divide–Who Decides?

The American Constitution establishes a government of limited and enumerated powers to protect the property and safety of its sovereign citizens. There is a lot in that sentence so let me unpack it. Sovereignty in the United States resides in its individual citizens. We are responsible for our own lives and how to live them. But to ensure our ability to exercise our freedom in a broader community we gave up limited powers to our government, which are checked and balanced among the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial). America has flourished under this arrangement of exceptional individual freedom.  “American Exceptionalism”

Our government is meant to provide the foundation and general rules for interacting with each other. It establishes the standard units of weights and measures, voltage, assignments of radio spectrum, rules of the road, etc. It defends us from aggression both foreign and domestic and administers the enforcement of contracts (courts). In short, it establishes the agreed framework in which we each take our own decisions about where to work, what to eat, and how to spend our free time within society. If we only surrender decisions (rules) that set and enforce the standards for our interactions with others, with minimal restrictions on our own behavior, our individual freedom will be maximized to our’s and our community’s benefit. America has flourished from our extensive individual freedom.

But where exactly is the optimal boundary between our individual and community choices? Views vary about the answer and the resulting policies between those of us who want small government and those who want somewhat larger government. What are the pros and cons of each? The answer, of course, will depend on the specific issue, but I want to review the question more generally.

The benefit of being free to take our own decisions about something is that it better reflects our knowledge of our particular situation and our own tastes. We don’t make such decisions in a void, of course. We draw on our own knowledge and values (taught by our parents, schools, clubs, churches, friends, etc.). Thus, our inherited and learned culture plays a critical role in the quality of our choices. Our government can help as well by promulgating information (the state of knowledge) and/or setting standards for communicating relevant information (e.g., product labeling standards). It can also add to our knowledge by financing basic research that private firms have little or no financial incentive to undertake (as opposed to applying the knowledge gained from such research to the development of marketable applications).

We also expect government (in addition to family and community organizations) to provide help when we are financially unable to because of sickness or unemployment (the social safety net). Because America is a rich country, we expect our social safety net to be relatively generous. Here is an area were views start to diverge. If we continue to have confidence in the ability of individuals to make sensible decisions, the government should help financially but not override the recipient’s freedom to choose how to use it. This is the philosophy of a Universal Basic Income.  “Replacing Social Security with a universal basic income”

At the other end of this spectrum are those who think that in many instances government employees can make wiser and better informed decisions for us than we can ourselves. Thus, instead of money we are given food stamps. Instead of school vouchers we are provided with take it or leave it neighborhood schools. Instead of health information on food products to help our individual choice, some food and other products are banned all together, etc.

The benefit of the government taking decisions for us is that individual officials (sometimes referred to as bureaucrats) can devote more time to investigating the costs and benefits of choices and thus potentially take and impose better decisions than we can ourselves. Though that might be true “in principle,” government officials are less likely to know our particular situation and tastes. In addition, the laws and regulations adopted in Congress and by government agencies are influenced more by the interests of the subjects of their regulations (e.g., Facebook) than of their customers (us). In other words, the discipline on the behavior of private firms from market competition is weaker or totally absent on regulators.

The case of the military/industrial complex is well known. Only the government can effectively defend us from potential foreign aggressors, so we are forced to live with the inefficiencies (corruption if you like) of the near monopoly that defense firms enjoy that ensures that the DOD keeps buying their products. The B-2 stealth bomber cost $2,100 million per plane. The scandalous F-35, the plane no one wants, cost US tax payers $115.5 million per plane. But the real cost to us of the military/industrial complex is the cost in lives, equipment, and reputation of our forever wars that ensure that BAE Systems, Bell Helicopter, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Pratt and Whitney and a few others, keep receiving billions of tax dollars every year.

Another example of government vs individual decision making is provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We look to the CDC for the best scientific guidance on protecting ourselves from disease, such as Covid-19 and to the FDA to approve what drugs and vaccines we are allowed to have. During the past year the “scientific” information provided by the CDC was polluted by ill-informed political messages. Public confidence in government information plummeted and advice became sadly political. “Covid-19-why aren’t we prepared”

The FDA initially mangled the approval of Covid-19 test kits, delaying their availability, thus undermining the detect and trace strategy. “Covid-19-what should Uncle Sam do?”  Fortunately, it then relaxed its risk averse restrictions on drug approvals to grant emergency approval of several Covid-19 vaccines. As of May 7, 111 million American’s have been fully vaccinated with these vaccines, which have proved safe and effective. Many lives have been saved as a result.

Last month the FDA reverted to its more independent, scientific form when it temporarily suspended the use of Johnson and Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine because of very rare blood clots. On April 13, the CDC and FDA issued a joint statement reporting that “As of April 12, more than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine have been administered in the U.S. CDC and FDA are reviewing data involving six reported U.S. cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot in individuals after receiving the J&J vaccine.”   “Joint CDC and FDA statement on Johnson-Johnson covid-19 vaccine”  There were more than that number of such blood clots among those who had not taken the vaccine. This measure reflects government’s usual excessive risk aversion. If they do their job right (approving drugs that are safe and effective), few people notice, but if they make a mistake (thalidomide babies), they are in big trouble. So, the incentive is to be overly cautious. During the several weeks hiatus in administering the Johnson and Johnson vaccine more people died from Covid who might have been saved if they had received the vaccination, than from the rare blood clot.  The political issue, once again, is who should decide–government officials or individuals on the basis of information provided by the government (and others). “Beating covid-19-compulsion or persuasion and guidance”

A very different example of government making decisions for us comes from our trade policy. Government imposed trade restrictions, often in the form of taxes on imports (so called tariffs), restrict our individual right to chose what we buy (or sell). While there may well be national security or other national interests that justify such interference, more often they simply reflect corruption (the financial favoring of one group or industry in exchange for votes). “Trade protection and corruption”  Former President Trump’s abuse of the national security excuse to tax Canadian steel imports provides a recent example.  “Tariff abuse”  Strangely, but no doubt for the same reasons, President Biden has not yet removed these damaging tariffs.  “Trump disastrous steel tariffs”

As a final example of our choice between government and individual decision making, consider President Biden’s American Families Plan, which provides $225 million in childcare subsidies. But rather than vouchers that can be used by families as they see fit, it finances government run childcare services. “Biden’s plan for government run childcare is exactly what most moms don’t want”  Sometimes government-run and controlled services are better than those we choose ourselves in the private sector (perhaps with government financial and/or information assistance). Not that many in my opinion. But, please let’s have a serious and informative discussion of the pros and cons of each.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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1 Response to The Great Divide–Who Decides?

  1. jtkolbe says:

    This is a really good piece, Warren—thoughtful, cogent, well-argued.

    Jim

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