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Sunday, December 31, 2017

When Is Government Big Enough?

Ask your local statist. Unless his answer is "never", he is not being honest. Statism is the public policy practice of an ideology with many names: socialism, social democracy, liberalism, progressivism... All those labels have one common denominator, namely the unrelenting pursuit of economic redistribution. 

Also known as "egalitarianism".


Alas, to answer the ultimate question: according to the statist playbook, government is big enough when there are - literally - no economic differences between individual citizens. 

As I explain in my book The Rise of Big Government: How Egalitarianism Conquered America, America's welfare state rests on precisely the same egalitarian ideology on which the destructive Swedish welfare state was constructed. Thanks to that welfare state, Sweden was fundamentally transformed, from a country with much in common with Switzerland or Britain - unending work ethic, razor sharp rule of law, flourishing economic freedom - to a diet version of the authoritarian political system that ruled Eastern Europe for most of the 20th century. 

Other European countries followed suit, transforming themselves more or less in the image of the egalitarian Swedish welfare state. Eventually, as I explain in my book, even Britain succumbed and replaced its conservative welfare state with an egalitarian version. 

In 1964, that same egalitarian project came to our shores.

And here we are. Where the conservative welfare state had clear limitations on the size of government, its egalitarian competitor is by definition open ended in its relentless pursuit of government growth. This is the simple reason why we constantly see new entitlement programs pop up - and why government spending continues to grow, through good times and bad. 

This is why we continue to see new entitlement programs pop up around us, such as Medicaid Expansion. For several years it stood on our state's border, knocking on taxpayers' doors asking to be let in. 

It may very well be that Matt Mead and the Spendoholics (playing here in Cheyenne in February) do not understand the deeper motivations behind such government growth as Medicaid Expansion, but regardless of why they want it, the idea nevertheless originates in the egalitarian project to eliminate economic differences.

Medicaid Expansion is not Governor Mead's only entitlement idea. As part of his ENDOW plan he has decided that we need another workforce training program in our state. Apparently a duplicate of what our community colleges do, this program would offer community-college style education on heavy subsidies from Wyoming taxpayers. 

Since this would be a big expansion of government involvement in post-secondary education, we might want to consider its implications for the future. To see where this could lead if left to grow on its own volition, here is a story from the Sacramento Bee in the People's Republic of California: 
Weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 19, which waives fees for first-time freshmen at California community colleges, officials in the Los Rios Community College District are wondering where the money will come to pay for the tuition breaks. AB 19, authored by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), would expand upon the current Board of Governors’ fee waiver for low-income students, recently renamed the California Promise Grant. The new grant would waive the first year of fees for all first-time, full-time students attending a California community college, regardless of need. 
Did you notice that? The "regardless of need" part is what gives away the egalitarian nature of this idea. Let us keep it in mind for the coming conversations about Governor Mead's workforce training program. 

Back now to the Sacramento Bee: 
National educational advocates like the College Promise Campaign celebrated the bill’s passage as a step toward their ultimate goal of free college education in the United States – a movement that experienced a surge in popularity during the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “By signing the California Promise bill into law, Gov. Jerry Brown is providing much-needed support for the state’s estimated 2.1 million community college students,” said College Promise Campaign director Martha Kanter in an emailed statement. “Now more students in the Golden State who believed higher education was beyond their means will pursue college.”
The average tuition for a community college in California is not exactly breathtaking, yet with one million students entering community colleges each year as first-time students, the average annual cost to California taxpayers could run as high as $1 billion per year.

As the story from the Sacramento Bee explains, this new entitlement program was concocted by a legislator - and approved by his peers - without even a smidge of concern for how to fund this idea. This is not surprising, when put in the context of egalitarianism: free education provides yet another product - college education - to students regardless of their ability to pay for it.

Or desire.

Having put myself through college on student loans (don't think for a moment that Sweden's tuition-free universities give you a free ride) I know exactly what it is like to value debt against your own future earnings potential. That calculation makes you a better, more responsible and harder working student. The same goes for merit-based scholarships, which is what got me through graduate school: you know you have to excel from one year to the next, or else there won't be another year of money waiting for you after the summer.

However, such reasoning is of no consequence to an egalitarian: to them, individual incentives and responsibilities are irrelevant. Their goal - again - is economic redistribution.

There is nothing wrong with our community colleges per se; they do a fine job of providing their students with advanced professional skills and a great career start. The problem is in the funding model, which is where Governor Mead and his ENDOW project gets lost. By decoupling the financial side of an education from the student's educational performance, he de facto accepts the idea that education is a right, not a responsibility. That, in turn, is the same line of thinking that led California legislators to pass the "free college" bill.

We have to fight the growth of government on all fronts, from superior economic analysis to principled reasoning. Sadly, much of today's American conservative movement seems to have lost the ability to do both - or either. Consider, for example, the ineptitude displayed by the supposed intellectual elite at the top right-of-center think tanks in our nation's capital, as they struggle with the idea that government should provide general income security - such as paid family leave - for every working person in this country. 

Egalitarians in California are beyond redemption. Hopefully, that is not the case with statists here in Wyoming, or the 25-30-year-old younglings who think that conservatism means government takes care of people out of its right hand instead of its left. However, in order to change the course of our country, we need to start by changing the course of Wyoming. Not only will we save our great state for future generations, but we will set an outstanding example for the rest of the country. 

The only way we can do that is to continuously, relentlessly, put forward superior economic analysis and principled reasoning. We always need both. One cannot live without the other; when we forget our principles, our economic analysis loses its direction. When we forget our economic analysis, our principles collapse into sophistry. 

Economic analysis and principled reasoning are like a fighter's two hands. If we excel with both hands, we will always win. It requires more work, but the better we get, the farther we will go.

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