Saturday, September 27, 2008

In Defense of Big Government

Most of the conservative discourse in which anti-government sentiment arises is economic, not social. The government is despised by conservatives mainly when it is placed in opposition to the free market.

There are several perspectives from which to critique the free market, and they've been explored far more ably by others. There is just one point that I'd like to make about it.

An article of faith among the free-marketeers is that the public sector is always inefficient, slow, incompetent, corrupt, and wasteful when compared to the private sector. I firmly believe that was true when Adam Smith first wrote about the invisible hand, but at this stage of capitalism's development, I don't think it is true any longer.

The notion of government bloat and waste versus private industriousness and efficiency was conceived centuries ago, when it used to be the case. It was the case then because it was when the private sector used to be made up of nothing but family businesses and local merchants -– what we now call “small business.” The advent of the multinational corporation has not just changed that, it has left it behind.

Billion-dollar multinational corporations didn't exist when The Wealth of Nations was written (except maybe the Vatican -- anyone dare to hold them up as a nimble, efficient, transparent organization?). Adam Smith could never have imagined that a single business, a single merchant, a single vendor could grow to the size that modern technology has allowed.

The only way to organize a human enterprise above a certain size is to make it a bureaucracy. Three or four generations ago the government was the only easily visible domain of bureaucracy. Now the corporate bureaucracy is at least as substantial.

It is bureaucracy that is the source of inefficiency and waste. It is bureaucracy that rewards incompetence and fosters corruption. These are innate characteristics of bureaucracy, regardless of which sector it occupies. To ascribe these characteristics to public bureaucracies, but exempt from them private bureaucracies, is a logical leap not supported by the facts. Doing so is the result of an attempt to apply notions of capitalism to a market that only passingly resembles the markets that existed when those notions were conceived.

If both private and public sector are just a pair of distinct arenas within which the Nerf-and-PVC gladiators of bureaucracy battle for surrogate glory, then what makes one innately better than the other? They are both structured identically, so why would one be orders of magnitude more or less lean or nimble? It’s like watching two champion sumo wrestlers running the hundred-yard dash with the expectation that whichever one wins will do so by a wide margin.

I would argue that if our lives must be shaped by enormous, bureaucratic concentrations of wealth and power, it is better for those concentrations to be democratically accountable to us. Corporate boardrooms make just as many decisions that affect our lives as do the White House and the halls of Congress, but none of those corporate bureaucrats can ever be voted out of power when they fuck things up. At least the government bureaucrats can.

It's time for conservatives to stop basing their economic judgments solely on a Scottish polemic written in 1776. Times have changed. No one doubts the invisible hand still exists, but with the advent of the multinational corporation, it spends more time than ever clenched into a bludgeoning fist.

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