Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Big Brother Government’ most ignored issue in 2008 presidential race


(Editor’s note: Lost in the personal smear slinging in the 2008 presidential race, is the increasing and alarming Big Brother Role of the government. While arguments heat up out on the hustings, the government has moved in with a billions of dollars bailout of the foundering Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The dangerous assumption that government can do something better than private industry, the massive involvement of government in something as basic as housing are all part of the larger question Dr. Tim Ball poses in this article. A persistent advocate that global warming is not man-made, Ball warns us that most contemporary governments now seek to remove personal freedom, coupled with the demand of more taxation: “At no time since World War II has the question of the size of government been more critical in a U.S. Election…)”
George Bernard Shaw said, “A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.” The comment raises many questions about what is at the heart of the current US election. First among these is the role of government. Should they have the power to take money from Peter to give to Paul? How much money should they be allowed to take? What impact does the transfer of wealth have upon Peter and Paul? How much does the action affect the willingness of Peter to produce surplus wealth or the desire of Paul to accept responsibility for his lack of wealth and do something about it? Edith Hamilton said, “When the freedom they wished for most was the freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and never was free again.”
Two interests evolved from my study of the impact of climate change on the human condition. One was the realization that drought is the single most devastating climate effect on flora and fauna and thus the people of the region. Second was the need to put any problem in a historical context. As a result I taught courses at the University level in water resources and political geography. The dictum I laid out for students especially in the latter, was geography was the stage and history the play performed upon that stage. You could study them independently, as is unfortunately the case in modern academia, but you only develop a more complete understanding when they are combined. For example, you only develop a clearer understanding of the growth of the fur trade and its impact on North America if you know how cold it was at that time. The greatest fur trading company that controlled one twelfth of the world’s land surface received its charter in 1670 just 13 years before there was a recorded 1 m (3 feet) of ice on the Thames River in London, England.
To understand the current US election, you must put it in the context of history. It is likely that the amount and role of government is as crucial a decision today as the original decision to break from Britain and establish a new country. However, they are very similar decisions. Both are about limiting the extent and power of government. The only difference is that one broke free from external imposition of government while the other is about preventing or at least controlling the internal imposition of government.
The original and primary role of a nation state government was to defend the nation. The government raises the money to perform this function, that’s required basis. Some people are aware that income tax was introduced as a temporary measure to pay for war. Unfortunately, governments like people are loath to surrender a source of income and the power that it provides.
We are a brief 63 years on from the end of World War II. While many have focused on the successful defeat of fascism and the defense of freedom, few think about the social and political effects. Some of these appear trivial but are actually quite profound. For example, necessity and practicality led to women wearing pants. Society also realized that women could perform jobs and roles previously the exclusive domain of men. Thank goodness for Rosie the riveter. On a world scale European colonies, particularly those of the British Empire, realized that Britain needed them as much as they needed Britain. Although the Empire was in decline prior to the war, this profound psychological shift lead rapidly to decolonization.
Since national governments had the role of defending the nation they were given the power to do what was necessary. I recall how dramatic the implementation of that power was when Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau determined the insurrection of separatists in Quebec was sufficient to implement the War Measures Act. This effectively removed the rights of individual citizens and provided the government with the power to act without accountability. Many expressed their concerns but to no avail. The majority, frightened by kidnapping and murder, were relieved to have the government take charge. Exploitation of these fears and the desire to be protected among the majority of the citizens is why dictatorships invariably invoke an outside threat to take absolute control.
During the World War II, allied nations that remained free from invasion saw their governments take considerable control. In England, it was extreme with the government even controlling through the use of ration books to type and amount of food as well as clothing to which citizens were entitled. Many don’t know that some of this rationing extended beyond the end of the war. I recall as a child the joyous year 1952 when candies (Sweets in England) were finally free of rationing.
While that marked freedom from extreme government control it did not mark the end of the larger role government had assumed. In Britain, the government of Winston Churchill was defeated by the Socialist government of Clement Atlee within a few months of the end of the war. It was reasonable for the people of Britain to look forward to a new form of life after the hardships and sacrifices they had made. The problem was the new government did not want to give up much of the power it inherited, especially since it serviced their political desires of greater government control. Although the events in Britain were more extreme than elsewhere, almost every country emerged from the war with greater government control of many aspects of everyone’s life.
Eventually, it was the cost of servicing such a government, in most cases funded by the former temporary but now permanent income tax that confronted the trend. Leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, led the charge against the cost of government. Interestingly, they didn’t really tackle the question about the role and extent of government in a nation and individual’s business. In fact, one can argue that it was the failure of Margaret Thatcher to deal with the social and economic fallout created by the reduction of government that led to her defeat.
In the current US election, the question of the role and extent of government is central. Ironically, it is more clearly defined because of the candidates. One clearly espouses a socialist view with a dramatically increased role for government. The other, although opposed to a larger government, clearly believes it has a significant role. Even selection of a more conservative Vice President did not address the question. Corruption, self-advancement, largess to cronies are moral and criminal issues regardless of political views. So both parties agree that governments will continue to exist, they only disagree on the extent. The question and challenge is defined, but how do we have that debate? The vast majority are agreed that communism with absolute government control and anarchy with no government control are not the answer, but beyond that there is great divide among the citizens about what should be in government hands and what should be left to individual citizens and private industry.
The debate is greatly complicated by the fact that few citizens have any experience of life with a dramatically reduced government. Listening to your fellow citizens provides measure of the difficulty. They will complain about too much government, too many taxes and too much red tape, yet you can hear the same people say about a problem, “Why doesn’t the government do something about this?” You can add to this the number of people, usually over half of any society, who prefer not to have responsibility or have to make decisions for themselves. They, like Paul, have benefited from the government robbing Peter to carry out those functions for them. They are not disposed to surrender a lack of personal responsibility and largess governments provide. Maybe the good news is that many of them don’t even exercise their right to vote.
One side in the debate presents the traditional argument for the role of government as defense of the nation against terrorism and radical Islam and now a growing resurgence of totalitarianism in Russia. The other side essentially ignores these concerns dismissing them as bogeymen of the power elite exploited to maintain power. However, they exploit a much greater bogeyman, the total collapse of the ecosystem.
Global warming and climate change skillfully confused with pollution have become the new enemy. It joins the general argument that industrialized humans are destroying the planet and thus becomes the outside threat most governments seek to remove personal freedoms and demand more taxation. In Britain, economist and politician Ed Miliband, brother of the Foreign Secretary David Miliband said, “I want a society where there is intergenerational equity.” This is doublespeak for the argument that we are wrecking the planet for our children and grandchildren. It is the standard exploitation of fear and guilt, but is it true?
The short answer is no. The world is in far better shape than environmentalists and media present. It is a very rare event when they report an improvement or identify and correct an earlier erroneous story. Before we surrender any more freedoms or money, we should assess the real situation. This is difficult because first you have to take the people from where the media have taken them. The media has created a virtual reality world and government agencies are disposed to identify problems to perpetuate themselves. As Mary McCarthy said, “Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.” While there are some problems, they are not usually the ones identified. Often we are diverted from real pollution and other issues. For example, the Canadian government spent billions on climate change while not even meeting their own targets for air pollution reductions. However, pollution levels were reduced, although not adequately or fast enough. Few people are aware that there are reductions in virtually all levels of pollution in the US and most western nations. Developing nations acknowledge the pollution problems, but generally take the view of the Indian government who said development to eliminate starvation trumps any immediate attempts to deal with climate change or pollution.
At no time since World War II has the question of the size of government been more critical in a US election. Ironically, the question is made more complicated by the surrender of individual freedoms to a monolithic government for the common good, an effort required by the war. Despite threats posed by terrorism, rogue governments, religious extremism and dictators, the real enemy that provides the greatest threat for more government that needs to justify removal of freedoms and increased taxes is the environment, especially global warming and climate change. It is not an adequate justification from any perspective. Besides as H L Mencken said, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.” So we come back to the question Abraham Lincoln posed: “Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its people or too weak to maintain itself.” It is a question that must be answered but few have experience of less government.

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