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.

Socialism as seen by Millennials

“Seventy percent of millennials in a new poll say that they are somewhat or extremely likely to vote for a socialist candidate.” “70-percent-of-millennials-say-theyd-vote-for-a-socialist”  That, and the current lead of Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, means that those of us who believe that capitalism is the foundation of our freedom and prosperity have a job to do to convince millennials that they are wrong about Socialism.  If Sanders wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, which I doubt, his long history of support for Soviet communism will be marched out by the Republicans. “Bernie Sanders support of communism is a moral failing”  As recently as a few days ago, Sanders was praising Fidel Castro. “Bernie-sanders-didnt-mention-the-dark-side-of-education-in-castros-cuba”  Sanders is not even a registered Democrat. But my concern is that so many millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z’s (born between 1995 and 2015) are attracted to Socialism. We need to convince them that it will not deliver the better society that they think it will.

We need to start with the recognition that these new generations, like all of their predecessors, want to do the “right thing.” “The-search-of-purpose”  They are searching for how best to address the deficiencies of life in America today. While dire poverty has been reduced from over 90% to less than 10% by capitalism, there is still that 10%.  Adult literacy has been at 99% for a few decades but the quality of public school education has been declining.  Only half of elementary school students in California are proficient in English (i.e., performed at grade level). “California-school-test-scores-2019”  And so on. The question is how to address these problems? What should we do to further improve our lives economically and culturally? Should we increase the role of government in directing resources and making our decisions or reduce it or adjust it? Do we need more Socialism or more Capitalism?

In 1919 the “Old Bolsheviks,” Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky, wrote in the widely read The ABC of Communism, that the communist society is “an organized society,” based on a detailed, precisely calculated plan, which includes the “assignment” of labor to the various branches of production.  As for distribution, according to these eminent Bolshevik economists, all products will be delivered to communal warehouses, and the members of society will draw them out in accordance with their self-defined needs.  I urge my young friends to read the fuller account in Ralph Raico’s  “Marxist-dreams-and-soviet-realities”

The theoretical and historical/empirical cases against Socialism are overwhelming, at least to those of us who lived through the cold war and the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s and the Israeli kibbutzim more gradually in the 1960s through 1980s.  Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela provide contemporary examples.  Sanders and many millennials reject these examples (sort of) as reflecting the bad luck of state capture by bad guys (I am not aware of any bad girl examples). But the centralization of the power to direct businesses and people that is the essence of Socialism, is a natural and powerful magnet for bad guys.  No socialist regime has escaped the opportunities and temptations to favor its friends and relatives with government contracts or protections from the horrors of competition. “Crony capitalism”  Venezuela is a particularly shocking example of the rapid deterioration of one of South America’s wealthiest countries.

Sanders often points to the Scandinavian countries as examples of the softer democratic Socialism he now says he has in mind.  But he is fifty years out of date. The experiment with “democratic socialism” by, for example, Sweden in the 1960s and 70s was a failure and abandoned in recent decades. “Bernie Sanders’s Scandinavian fantasy”

Socialism has failed historically because it lacks incentives (financial rewards) for hard work and the development of better mouse traps, provides incentives for corruption, and is really hard to “get right.”  National Socialism (Nazism) and other versions of socialism involved top down control over many aspects of society.  But the central allocation of resources and decisions about what we may and may not do–central planning–suffers from serious informational challenges even when made by smart and totally honest people. Friedrich Hayek had much to say about the importance of prices in a market economy for providing critical, decentralized information on people’s preferences and thus on the optimal allocation of resources. “The Road to Serfdom”

But we are not likely win over the younger generations to capitalism just on the bases that it has given us standards of material well-being and individual freedom unimaginable several hundred years ago.  We also need, I think, to defend its moral superiority while offering promising remedies to its remaining deficiencies.

The morality of capitalism rests, in my view, in its capacity to give us, and to protect, our ownership of the fruits of our own labor. This means also the freedom to decide how to live.  It is a system in which we bear the primary responsibility for our own decisions and actions and their consequences.  It is a system that flourishes in a culture of trust and mutual caring and thus encourages such values. It is a system that rewards and thus encourages virtuous behavior. The top down, central planning, central control of socialism tends to have the opposite effect.  A common saying in the Soviet Union (USSR), while it still existed, was that “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

America was unique in its time (exceptional) in establishing a constitution and government in which the people gave up limited authority to their government to protect their property and liberty, rather than, as with the Magna Carta, the sovereign giving up some of its authority to the people.  See American Exceptionalism.  In the personal freedom this provided and the accompanying responsibilities it imposed, Americans flourished in every sense of the word more than most. Those who fall behind or floundered were not ignored.  It was a country of free and virtuous people and as Thomas Jefferson said at the end of his presidency in 1809: “the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government.”[1]  Seymour Martin Lipset in the middle of the 1990s used the concept of this exceptionalism to explain “why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party.…”  I would hate to see that change.

Countries differ in the balance of personal freedom and security (safety net, police, army) they seek. But in the most successful ones the provision by the government of security is limited and well targeted to minimize its infringements on personal freedom.  Here are my earlier thoughts on improving the government’s role in and contribution to an orderly free market, capitalist system: “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017”

Let me end with a quote from Winston Churchill to drive my point home: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”  Indeed, Capitalism has its flaws, but Socialism has no success stories that we should strive to emulate. The way to move forward is to repair the flaws in a Capitalistic free market society.

[1] Quoted in Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty p 7; see John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian cyclopedia (1900).