Thursday, May 31, 2018

What Are the Core Functions of Government?

I try not to discuss individual candidates for office, except when it comes to governor, and in that case it is because of the significance of the executive branch itself. This blog is not about individual candidates, but about how to turn the ideals of economic and individual freedom into practical policy solutions.

I am going to make an exception of sorts today, but the exception is directly related to the purpose of this blog. According to KGAB,
Cheyenne Attorney Boyd Wiggam said Thursday if he is elected to the Laramie County Commission, he will focus on helping the county deal with continued growth and making sure county government's core functions are the priority.
I have worked with Boyd Wiggam. He is smart and thoughtful. As a general observation, we need more people like him in politics. 

There is one point, however, in what KGAB reports as Wiggam's policy ideas, that needs some discussion, and this is not because of his candidacy per se. There is a more principled reason why I would like to discuss it. Back to KGAB:
Wiggam said for a county government the focus needs to be on such things as managing rural roadways and having enough sheriff's deputies "to provide the level of emergency and safety services that we expect of our county." ... As an example of a high priority item, Wiggam cited the need for adequate law enforcement in eastern Laramie County. He said things like aesthetic regulation, that might come into play in a more urban environment, are less of a priority for county government.
This is a good priority list. If Wiggam can help focus our county government on law enforcement and infrastructure, he will be moving Laramie County in the right direction. That, however, also means that the county commission needs to take other issues off its priority list, or set themselves up for a significant increase in taxes. 

Here, things get a bit complicated. KGAB again:
Wiggam, who formerly worked for the Wyoming Liberty Group, said he that while he generally favors small government, the government still needs to be big enough to manage its core functions. He said those functions include such things as health, safety, welfare and protecting private property.
When I lived in South Carolina many years ago, I got into a conversation with a long-time state senator who characterized himself as "the most conservative man to ever walk in a pair of shoes". Then he went on to explain everything government should provide. By the time he was done, he sounded more like a mainstream liberal than a conservative. 

Wiggam stands on much firmer ground. He even discusses priorities, for which he deserves a lot of credit. He is clear and firm when it comes to law enforcement and infrastructure as being core functions of a county government, but his inclusion of welfare and health care in his list of core government functions is a reason for a broader discussion. 

Since I have worked with Wiggam, I know he is a conservative. The problem here is not his values - and it is certainly not Wiggam - but how modern-day conservatism appears to have stretched itself out leftward. This is a worrisome trend, one that happened in many European countries about 40-50 years ago: as the left moved leftward, making the sky the limit for government, the right followed suit, trying to slow down the growth and bring a modicum of sense back into the political conversation. 

In an interesting book from 1984 about the Swedish welfare state, political scientist and politician Gunnar Heckscher presented what was then the modern conservative take on the welfare state. The book, titled The Welfare State and Beyond, took for granted that government had skin in the game almost everywhere the Swedish welfare state was involved at that time. The conservatism that Heckscher discussed - though using a different terminology based on a European context - was not the conservatism that had been vibrant in Swedish politics only 25-30 years earlier. 

Like in so many other welfare states, the Swedish left pushed its conservative opponents in front of itself, out toward the left, making more and more functions of government part of its core. The same thing has happened here in the United States, with a half-century delay. While I know that Boyd Wiggam will make a difference for the better on the Laramie County Commission, he does represent a prevailing idea of conservatism that is symptomatic for an elaborate welfare state.

Let me make clear that I do not believe that Wiggam thinks Laramie County should introduce some sort of single-payer system for health care. I know Wiggam to be much smarter than that. However, when we include health care in the core duties of government, we always run the risk of creating an open-ended commitment, courtesy of taxpayers, to provide a product that is better delivered privately. 

Health care is the one service that, when put under government, tends to run away with taxpayers' money, or be subject to rationing that will trap people in second-tier health care. I am not saying that Wiggam would let either scenario unfold in Laramie County, but if he thinks health care is a core government function, he is playing with fiscal fire. 

Beyond that, there is also the question of how we will define mainstream conservatism in the future. As the welfare state expands, there is a clear risk that conservatives will include more functions in government's core duties. Today, income security for working adults is not part of what conservatives think of as core functions, but when welfare is included we immediately open for permanent income redistribution as being included in those functions. 

This is no small problem. When someone says that a government - be it a city, a county, a state or the federal government - should provide welfare, what exactly does that mean? We use a relative poverty concept here in the United States, and we have since President Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society project. This concept is egalitarian in nature, making people eligible not because they cannot support themselves otherwise, but because their income is below a certain percentage of median household income. 

In short, by providing welfare, a county commission could be participating in income redistribution, which - much like unspecified provision of health care - is an open-ended commitment on taxpayers' tab. 

I am glad to see someone with Boyd Wiggam's character and integrity get involved in politics. We need more of his kind. If, on top of being a good county commissioner, he would open up a discussion about what it really means to be a conservative, he could make a big difference for the better. 

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