When I was a little girl, one of the refrains in my life was “get your cotton-pickin’ fingers out of that.” I didn’t mean to be destructive. I was always certain I could make things better. I had bald Barbies, because I was pretty sure I could make their hair look better. I had misshapen stuffed animals, because I thought I could fix stuffing defects. My generous destructive tendencies didn’t stop with my own stuff. Cameras lost lenses, appliance knobs got jammed, and the food my mom was cooking got ruined. I thought I was “fixing” things. My parents knew that my cotton-pickin’ fingers were wrecking havoc.
I was a little girl, and had an excuse for my ill-fated attempts to improve things. What’s the excuse our government has for continually interfering with things in which it has no business? And even worse, what’s the excuse of citizens who keep demanding more interference from the government? I don’t want Washington to “fix” the economy. I want it to back off. Let people who know something about business, about supply and demand, about capital, about finances, about consumers, and generally about the facts on the ground, be the ones who fix business. All that government offers, whether Democrat or Republican, is stupid good will and cotton-pickin’ fingers.
After I expounded on this theory to my sister, she asked, “What should government do?” I started the usual list: National Security, Epidemic and Pandemic Control (as opposed to telling people what to eat or how much to weigh), Transcontinental Road and Bridge Building and Maintenance (not “intercontinental,” but “transcontinental”) — basically, things in which it has an interest.
Take national security, for example. Government definitely has an interest in national security. That’s one of its biggest jobs and, more importantly, it’s not a job that can be handled competently by states or individual citizens. Because the government is very goal oriented when it comes to national security, it tends to do it efficiently. Sure, there’s waste and graft and corruption, but on the whole, as long as the political will is there, our national security system does its core job very well, whether its our men and women in on foreign battle fields, or our information gatherers here at home.
People confuse the main national security goal with the often beneficial by-products it produces. A classic example is to support a demand that the government fund science by pointing to the huge surgical strides Americans have made during every war since WWI, or to the far-reaching scientific and technological innovations flowing from NASA. But what they forget was that, in each case, the government had a bigger goal than better sutures or a computer chip. The government was not trying to improve surgery but was, instead, trying to keep its troops alive so that they could fight and win. And up until Obama turned NASA into a Muslim outreach organization, it’s purpose was to help us beat the Soviets in the Cold War. That its technology benefited the private sector was great, but that wasn’t the government’s job.
Problems always arise when government tries to micromanage things in which it has no interest. Government is neither a consumer nor a business, so when it meddles in the marketplace, it does so without any coherent goals, strategies or tactics. It’s inefficient because it can be inefficient: as long as things are sort of moving in one direction or another, there is no specific outcome the government is heading towards.
The same holds true for science: Nowadays, the government tries to pick scientific winners or losers, depending on the political flavor (and trendy Hollywood star) of the day. As ethanol, biofuels and Solyndra show, the government has an uncanny knack for backing the wrong horse. Because government spends our money using a mystical and poisonous combination of politics, bureaucracy and corruption, its decisions are unrelated to practical realities. It’s the marketplace that should be investigating the best way to reduce pollution, whether that means increasing fossil fuel outputs and cleaning emissions, or finding entirely new energy strategies. Because government as an entity has no responsibility for science qua science, it shouldn’t pretend — at great taxpayer expense — that it does.
And that, my children, is your sermon for the day.