Dear Government, Please keep your cotton-pickin’ fingers out of my business *UPDATED*

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.

UPDATEBiden’s Solyndra speech pretty much makes my point.  This Jim deMint article does too.

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Comments

  1. Marica says

    Book: “Because government as an entity has no responsibility for science qua science, it shouldn’t pretend — at great taxpayer expense — that it does.”

    Ahem.

    The National Institutes of Health have an annual budget of over $30,000,000,000. I know this isn’t the main thrust of your post, but it still does fall under the umbrella, doesn’t it? And if so– I think your readers will love this summary chart of “Estimates of Funding for Various Research, Condition, and Disease Categories (RCDC).” (I sure do hope the font gets cleaned up when I hit post!) 

  2. Spartacus says

    Until the DOJ came along in 1870, there were only three cabinet departments:
      – State — Make nice with foreigners.
      – War — Speak with foreigners initially uninterested in making nice with State.
      – Treasury — Collect tariffs and pay miscellaneous bills associated with State and War.
     
    And you know what?  THAT WORKED JUST FINE!!!  For over 80 years, nobody seemed to be bothered about not having almost a dozen more cabinet-level departments!  We were too busy expanding to fill most of a continent, taming it, and growing (5% average annual GDP growth back then) to be the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth.
     
    I don’t think it’s necessary to go all the way back to three departments, but wouldn’t that make a nice baseline in January 2013, with a Tea Party majority writing a budget that erred on the side of “cease, desist, archive, and liquidate”?

  3. Oldflyer says

    Justifying any governmental activity by citing tangential benefits is not an honest exercise.
     
    I frequently ask anyone who will listen to me what the purpose of the manned space program is; and what benefit does the nation attain from pursuing the purpose.  I am usually bombarded with a litany of the neat technological fall-outs that benefit our lives.  So, I ask if these techno advances could not have been achieved much cheaper and more effectively by pursuing them directly, instead of sweeping  them off the floor of the NASA money burning machine. I get no answer.
     
    Of course there is the other response to the basic question.  It goes along the lines, of “because it the last frontier, and man is meant to explore”.  To put it nicely, Hogwash.  Our predecessors explored frontiers with a purpose in mind, usually to find more effective trade routes, for colonization,  or to search for riches.  Oh, there are those who climb mountains, because “they are there”.  But, they usually have the good grace to pay their own way.  If NASA’s manned program was meant to find beneficial returns for its exploratory efforts, then it really has been a 45 year failure.
     
    Manned space has been a boondoggle; and a great amusement ride, funded by the tax payers, for a relative hand full of people.  Unmanned space efforts are clearly a different story.  Not only have our probes explored deep space, at a fraction of the cost of manned flight, but inner space is crowded with satellites that perform a wealth of useful services.  These satellites were launched for specific purposes, unlike our shuttles and their predecessors.  Then, there is the space station.  I wonder who will claim it after we abandon it.
     
    I know there will be gasps, and cries of outrage.  I only ask, name a  country which has suffered because it did not have a manned space program?  Europeans?  Chinese?  Indians?  (Of course some have piggy backed on ours, and some foolish ones appear to be poised to waste their own resources to develop one.  The lust for national as well as personal prestige is never ending.)  Is Russia better off for having a manned program, albeit financed and supported technically by us for the past few decades?  The prestige attained by their early successes faded quickly enough as we outspent them rather dramatically, and they soon realized that going it alone was too expensive.  They were lucky to have a rich uncle, who let them go on pretending to be in the game.  Too bad Uncle went broke.

  4. says

    Oldflyer:  To my mind, NASA was never anything more than a thumb in the eye to the Soviets.  It was part of the oneupmanship that characterized that chapter in American history.  We did it because they did it.

  5. says

    All the tech from NASA happened in the beginning, when NASA outsourced more than 60% of processes to Private Industries. Then the tech started disappearing the more NASA compartamentalized and bureacratized.

     

  6. says

    Wait, don’t tell me people are still under the dumb as heck assumption that when a government bureaucracy is first created, they can actually make out of whole cloth something like a manned rocket? Are people still living in a world where they think the moon landing was a government fake or something? 

  7. Mike Devx says

    Oldflyer #5 on the manned space program:

    No howls of outrage here!  Remember it began as a prestige race early in the Cold War, and the Soviets were winning.  Was it reasonable for the USA to devote so much time and energy to putting a man on the moon?  Probably… but it is worthy of debate.

    On the scientific benefits of the space race in the 60′s, there were significant scientific advances.  Again, the question is, were they worth it?

    Then we have the near-earth issues:  Satellites for both spying and for space-based weapons that might target US cities raise national security concerns – we’ve got to be able to blind the satellites and knock them out.

    Then there is Skylab and its followup, the ISS, and the space shuttle to support the ISS.

    Those are the issues…

    We definitely have a national security interest in near-earth satellites, both our own and potential enemies.  Aside from that, I think we should move to privatization of the rest of the space based effort.  The government sets the playing field to be fair, and we open it up to competition.  There are already quite a few interesting efforts along the privatization path.  It does look like we’re headed that way; I think we just need to restrict NASA’s mission to national security, and get it out of the rest of its business.  I haven’t spent much time thinking through all the ramifications, so that’s just my starting position…
     

  8. suek says

    Well…

    to be fair…

    It was during the Cold War. The Cold War meant that the USSR was not only a political enemy, it was perceived as a military enemy as well. Their space efforts were seen as having military potential…it wasn’t just a science trip. And _our_ efforts were seen as the same – having military potential.

    It doesn’t seem like that today – maybe because we don’t have any current enemies with the potential to threaten us militarily. China may well take us over – but it will be by means of economic endeavor, not military, I think. I see the new challenge of a space program to be one of “What have you done for me lately”. That is, if a space program will provide some sort of economic benefit, it will thrive. If not, it will fail. So, satellites that provide support for communications, GPS support etc will do well. Ones that provide a site to give a deeper look into outer space…probably not.

    I don’t know. I have two sons who think it’s critical that we find another planet suitable for human habitation. They are of the opinion that we will either overpopulate this earth, or run out of raw material. I think they’re both nuts – products of early exposure to Star Trek – but maybe I’m just an old stick in the mud. Or maybe “old stuck in the mud”…

  9. Mike Devx says

    > I have two sons who think it’s critical that we find another planet suitable for human habitation. They are of the opinion that we will either overpopulate this earth, or run out of raw material.

    And there’s always the risk of an extinction event meteor or asteroid.  But none of these are compelling reasons for our government to control space exploration and exploitation.

    We *will* be out there mining asteroids someday.  Hopefully America will be doing that via private enterprise.  If we do, we’ll beat the pants off of all the other government-run operations.

    It would be a good idea to colonize and settle another planet – one that is terrestrial.  But there’s no reason at all for a government to be involved.  We could only send “seedships” of colonists off into interstellar space on journeys thousands of years long.  Essentially, we would build huge self-sustaining ships in orbit, staff them with volunteers, wish those volunteers good luck, launch them, and forget about them forever.   The problem is the speed of light and the distance to any habitable planet.  No shared government is possible; for all intents and purposes, even *communication* would be impossible.  So why should government be involved in the effort?  It makes no sense at all.

     

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