Kill the Umpire!
I think you can spend your money more wisely than the
federal government can.
George W. Bush
Second Presidential Debate, 2000
Those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which
might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to
be, restrained by the laws of all governments.
The Wealth of Nations
Regressives do not like government – unless, of course, it serves their
interests. Progressive critics call this “corporate welfare,” or “socialism
for the rich, free enterprise for the poor.”
At times, the regressive’s aversion for government can only be described as
bizarre. Consider the following:
The members who spoke in this capital [Williamsburg,
Virginia] said 'no' to taxes because they loved freedom. They argued,
"why should the fruits of our labors go to the crown across the sea."
Well, in the same sense we ask today, "why should the fruits of our
labors go to that capital across the [Potomac] river?" . . . . We, like
the patriots of yesterday, are struggling to increase the measure of
liberty enjoyed by our fellow citizens. We're struggling, like them, for
self-government -- self-government for the family, self-government for
the individual and the small business, and the corporation... What
people earn is their money. Seventy-two years after its inception, what
is our Federal tax system? It is a system that yields great amounts of
revenue, even greater amounts of disorder, discontent and disobedience.
[Tax cheating] is not considered bad behavior. After all, goes this
thinking, what's wrong with cheating a system that is itself a cheat?
That isn't a sin, it's a duty!1
While it sounds like the ravings of some anarchist militia
nut, it was in fact spoken by Ronald Reagan, fomenting rebellion against the
very government over which he presided. This should not come as a surprise,
after all this was the President who told us, in his first inaugural
address, that "government is not the solution, government is the problem."
Why should we then be surprised to find him quoting our founding fathers:
"taxation without representation is tyranny!" -- conveniently dropping the
second and third words of that war cry?
When the late Barry Goldwater said such things thirty years ago, they were
considered beyond the pale of conventional political debate. Today's
conventional journalistic wisdom is telling us that Goldwater's triumphant
followers have long-since accomplished and moved beyond his platform.
Everywhere, "Big Government" is anathema and in retreat. "Anything
government can do, the free market can do better." ("What?! You don't agree?
What are you, some kind of socialist")
The triumph of the anti-government message is so complete that it has
retreated from public debate and has become a virtual presupposition of our
public discourse - an article of faith so "obvious" that very few even
bother to question it.
For example: We often hear on the air or in casual conversation, the remark
"who can trust the government when it can't even deliver the mail on time!"
Surely that remark, which has become a cliché, deserves some exposure as a
Grade-A bad rap! We hear it so often, that we don't pause even to think
about it. In point of fact, the US Postal Service is renowned the world over
as one of the most reliable and well-functioning institutions under the sun.
Now be honest: when is the last time that one of your letters was really
"lost in the mail?" (Remember, this isn't one of your creditors asking
this). Frankly, I can not remember when this last happened to me. And when
you mailed that package last December 21, convinced that it could not
possibly be delivered by Christmas, weren't you amazed to find out that it
was? Don't we all, in fact, simply take the reliability of the Postal
Service for granted - and for good reason? And yet, when that "can't deliver
the mail on time" slander is made, rarely is it challenged.
And so, despite abundant and familiar refuting evidence, we now have the new
conventional wisdom: "private initiative and market mechanisms will always
come up with better solutions than the government!" Oh, really! "Often
better," to be sure. Perhaps even "usually better." But "always better?" Who
would you prefer to assure you that your food is uncontaminated and that
your drugs are safe and effective? Private industry or the Food and Drug
Administration? Who would you trust to keep the public airshed and water
supply clean? Private industry or the EPA? Who would you rather have as the
owners of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the other national parks? Yourselves
along with all your fellow citizens, or MCA and Disney Inc.? "Always
better?" Even the most thoroughgoing libertarians concede that there is a
"public interest" in protecting the lives, liberties and property of
individual citizens, and thus that, at the very least, the police, the
military and the courts can not legitimately be privatized.
But by granting even this little, the libertarians give themselves away. If
it is the legitimate function of government to protect the lives, liberties
and property of its citizens, then it is clearly the function of government
to regulate the activities of private individuals and corporations.
To be sure, to the corporations and the oligarchs, "big government" is
unquestionably a nuisance and a financial burden, as it goes about its
appropriate business of acting in behalf of the rest of us.
But since "the rest of us" have been denied access to the airwaves (due to
the demise of "The Fairness Doctrine"), and since, in A. J. Liebling's
words, "freedom of the press belongs to those who can afford to own a
printing press," and finally, since our Congress has been sold to the
highest bidders ("cash is speech," saith the Supremes in Buckley v. Valeo),
the anti-government crowd has had the public podium pretty much to
themselves, and thus even the plain beneficiaries of government protection
have been persuaded to join cry to "Kill the Umpire!"
Never mind that the moment the umpires leave the field, the game is over,
and nobody wins! This is true with every organized team sport, and as
history demonstrates conclusively, it is true of all human societies that
have attained a civilized condition.
The greatest strength of the anti-government message lies in the fact that
much of it is true. "Aren't governments shot-through with waste, fraud, and
abuse?" Of course they are! And so too is every human institution, including corporations. But the inference from imperfection to
uselessness and even malignancy is, to say the least of it, a "stretch." No
Police Department can completely eliminate crime, and no Fire Department can
completely eliminate fires. They are imperfect institutions. Do we then
propose their abolition? Certainly not! Instead, we strive constantly to
So it is with governments. The founders of the American republic were well
aware of the abuses of government, having successfully struggled to
overthrow a foreign tyranny. And so they tried, with the Articles of
Confederation, a minimalist government - which failed.
Having learned from this failure, the Founding Fathers adopted a
Constitution for a government of laws, with checks and balances, and with a
Bill of Rights explicitly stating the limits of that government ("Congress
shall make no law..."). However, even before the Bill of Rights and the body
of the Constitution itself, we find the Preamble, which clearly recognizes
that government has a function: namely, "... to form a more perfect Union,
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common
defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to
ourselves and our Posterity..." Nowhere in that document, did the founders
say or suggest that all this could be accomplished entirely through the
unregulated activity of self-serving "economic persons" in the market place.
Least of all did they indicate any endorsement of Margaret Thatcher's
infamous observation that "there is no such thing as society, there are
individual men and women, and there are families."
True to the spirit of Thatcher's social atomism, we are now casually
dismantling a civic and political order that is the envy of world - the sort
of civil society that the Russians and the former Soviet republics are
desperately attempting to achieve.
If the regressives succeed in drowning government in Grover Norquists
“bathtub,” will they be content? Assuredly not, as the following parable
Mr. Delay Goes to Washington
This was an important day in the life of Congressman Tom
DeLay (R. Texas). He had to catch an early flight from Houston to
Washington, in time to lead the fight in Congress to protect us all against
the encroachment of "Big Government" in our personal lives.
And so, upon awaking to his clock-radio, he learned from the US Weather
Service that the flying weather was ideal, but that later in the week a
tropical storm was likely to hit Houston. So he made a note to have the
storm windows put up. He then enjoyed a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs,
certified Grade A by the US Department of Agriculture, and dutifully took
his daily prescriptions, pronounced safe and effective by the Food and Drug
Administration. While at the table, he checked the stock quotes in the
morning paper, assured by the Securities and Exchange Commission that he had
not been swindled. On the way to the airport, he stopped at the bank to take
out some pocket money, and was not at all surprised to find that his account
was intact, as guaranteed by The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation .
His flight took off on time and without incident, after the aircraft had
been certified as safe, and his flight cleared for take-off, by personnel of
the Federal Aviation Agency.
Three hours later, Tom DeLay arrived at "Reagan National Airport" safe,
healthy and financially secure, thanks to all the above "big government
bureaucracies" and still others too numerous to mention.
Firm in his conviction that his fellow taxpayers were "better qualified than
the government to spend their own money," DeLay then led the successful
fight to return $1.3 trillion of federal taxes "to the people" (more than
half of it to the wealthiest two-percent of "the people.")
"I think you can spend your money more wisely than the
federal government can." This remark by George Bush, during the second
presidential debate, came to mind recently, as I
was watching the movie, "The Perfect Storm." Because the Captain chose to
ignore the warnings of the National Weather Service, the "Andrea Gail" went
down with the loss of all hands. Other crews, less dismissive of "big
government bureaucracy" paid heed and survived. And when a sailboat, caught
in the storm, was about to sink, the Coast Guard, answering their distress
call, rescued the helpless crew. It is doubtful that, at that moment, any of
those rescued sailors felt that this big government agency was less
qualified than they to deal with the emergency.
This citizen's debt of gratitude to "big government" came
very close to home in late October 2003 -- specifically, within 100 feet of
"home." Then, "The Old Fire" consumed 91 thousand acres of federal, state,
and private land in the San Bernardino mountains. The fire almost surrounded
the cluster of homes in our neighborhood, and only the combined, coordinated
and professional effort of the US Forest Service and state and local fire
fighters saved our homes. We were ordered off the mountain while these "big
government bureaucracies" did their work -- magnificently. (See my
Burns, It Earns").
Presumably, Mr. Delay's solution would be for each of us
private citizens to take a valiant stand by our individual houses, garden
hoses in hand. Who can doubt that if we tried that, all our houses would
have been reduced to heaps of ashes, and most of us would have ended up as
No question about it: When our mountain caught fire, "the government in
Washington" -- and Sacramento, and San Bernardino -- were "better qualified"
to spend our money.
And so we are led to ask: are we as individuals, or the government, better
— deliver the mail.
— predict the weather
— ensure that our food is safe to eat
— protect the lives and property of the citizens
— determine the safety and efficacy of our medicines
— monitor and respond to epidemics
— identify and mitigate environmental pollution
— support "economically useless" basic scientific research
Speaking for myself, I am not prepared to devote the time
and expense, or to gain the expertise, to set up a laboratory in my basement
to determine if my food and drugs are safe and effective. Nor can I run off
to Wall Street and carry out a private investigation to find out if my
investments are safe from violations of the securities laws, nor am I
qualified to check the innards of a passenger jet to see if it is
flight-worthy, and I have no idea how to direct air traffic.
In all these cases, and countless more, I will readily concede that I am
less qualified than the appropriate government agencies to "spend my tax
Neither are these proper functions for "the private sector," for in each
case, these are regulatory activities – the enforcement of laws and
regulations upon self-interested parties in behalf of the general public. It
makes no more sense to "privatize" government regulation and services, than
it would be to have the referees of a pro-football game in the employ of one
of the teams, or to have the police force under the control of organized
crime. (Alas, not unheard of).
A case in point: in 1962, the pharmaceutical industry put pressure on the
Food and Drug Administration to release the sedative drug, thalidomide, for
general distribution. That pressure was steadfastly resisted by an FDA
"bureaucrat," Dr. Francis Kelsey, who thus spared thousand of infants from
birth defects. Unfortunately, similar "government interference" was not in
place to restrain Pfizer from marketing Vioxx and Celebrex.
Another case: in 1934, the federal government established the Federal
Communications Commission, in order to regulate "traffic" in the broadcast
spectrum. Significantly, the FCC was enacted at the insistence of the
broadcast industry, which finally came to realize that without a neutral
agency to assign and enforce frequencies, electronic chaos and cacophony would result.
Tom Delay’s Grievance Against “Big Government.”
With all these manifest services afforded to all United
States citizens by the federal government, why do Tom DeLay and his
political allies regard that same government as if it were an oppressor?
The answer may be found in his pre-political career. Before he ran for
public office, Tom DeLay was in the pesticide business. In that business, he
came face-to-face with "big government interference," when the Environmental
Protection Agency told him that he could no longer sell or use such
pesticides as DDT. This regulation, the result of many years and millions of
dollars of government sponsored scientific research, benefited song birds,
birds of prey, and oh yes, young children and other vulnerable critters. At
the same time, this "big government decree" was a damned nuisance to the
chemical industry and to pest controllers such as DeLay, who came to refer
to the EPA as a "Gestapo.".
What business is it of "big government" to tell Tom DeLay that he can't
poison his neighbors and the ecosystem, as he goes about his business of
The answer is as close as the founding documents of our Republic. "To secure
these rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, states the
Declaration of Independence, "governments are instituted among men." And in
the Preamble to the Constitution, we find that the government is
established, among other things, to "promote the general welfare."
If, as the libertarians insist, it is the legitimate function of government to protect the lives,
liberties and property of its citizens, then it is clearly the function of
government to regulate the activities of private individuals and
corporations that threaten these lives, liberties and property. As history
testifies, entrepreneurs like Tom DeLay do not like to be told that the
internal organs of unconsenting citizens are inappropriate catchments of
their chemical residues. Meat packers don't like to have government
inspectors around while they are making sausages. Drug companies do not like
to be told that they can't put opium in their cough medicine, and that they
cannot put a drug on the market before it has been proven both safe and
effective. Mine owners have fewer qualms than government inspectors about
putting their workers' lives in peril. Broadcasters don't like to be told
that the public airwaves that they are freely given must contain some
"public service" content, or that opinions other than their own deserve a
And most conspicuously, the Enron Corporation found federal regulation so
distasteful that it arranged to disarm the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, while investing
millions in "gifts" to pundits and in "contributions" to members of
Congress. Then the senior corporate officers "took the money and ran,"
leaving thousands of their employees without their life savings.
Make no mistake: if we abandon federal regulation and oversight (called by
regressives "government control of our lives"), this does not mean that
"control" will necessarily devolve to each of us ordinary citizens. As
isolated private individuals, we are all too often ill-equipped to protect
our interests against the assaults of impersonal corporate power. The
history of the late nineteenth century bears out this observation. Absent
the protections of "big government," our food will once again be tainted,
and our drugs again unsafe and ineffective. Pest controllers like Tom DeLay
will once again spread poison on to the land, heedless of the "side-effects"
once the primary objective of "zapping the bugs" has been achieved. The free
and diverse press which Jefferson regarded as essential to democracy and as
(take note!) an indispensable constraint upon the abuses of governmental
power, will be replaced by the monotone voice of media conglomerates in the
service of wealth and power.
Two Cheers for Government2
When, during a baseball game, a referee makes a call against
the home team, the fans are often heard to shout: "Kill the Umpire!" -
forgetting, for that moment, that without umpires, the game could not
Similarly, "abolish government" is another cry that issues from frustration.
Without a doubt, governments can be damned nuisances. They require us to pay
taxes, often for services that do not benefit us or for benefits which we
take for granted. Governments tell us that we can't build homes and
factories on public lands, that we can't throw junk into the air and rivers,
that we can't disregard traffic lights and drive at any speed we wish, and
that we can't sell medicines without first testing their safety and
efficacy. All this curtails the freedom and the wealth of some. But at the
same time, such "government interference" promotes the welfare of the
others: of consumers, travelers, ordinary citizens and, yes, even property
owners. Interestingly, among the liberal democracies, the constraints of
"big government" tend to burden the wealthy and powerful, while those same
constraints protect the poor and the weak, all of whom, in a just political
are equal citizens before the law.
Thus regressivism does not qualify as a just system for all members of
society. On the contrary, it is "master morality," reflecting the
preferences and protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
Complaints against "big government" and "over-regulation," though often
justified, also issue from the "masters" who are frustrated at finding that
their quest for still greater privileges at the expense of their community
are curtailed by a government which, ideally, represents that community.
Pure food and drug laws curtail profits and mandate tests as they protect
the general public. And environmental protection regulations "internalize"
the costs of pollution, thus properly burdening the corporations and their
investors as a direct result of these regulations relieving the unconsenting
public of the previously externalized costs.
The regressive's trust in "the wisdom of the free market" is likewise
attractive to the wealthy and powerful, since one's involvement with markets
- the regressive’s and the libertarian’s preferred instrument of social
adaptation and change - is proportional to one's access to cash. The Golden
Rule - "those with the gold get to rule" - is one of the first principles of
both "the master morality" and of the regressive right.
If regressive doctrine is a "master morality," reflecting and serving the
interests of the wealthy and powerful elites, how does one explain its
attractiveness to those who are ill-served by this ideology – i.e., most of
us? The closest approximation of a political-economic theory of regressivism
is adopted from the libertarians, and to be sure the foundational principles
of libertarianism - the rights to life, liberty, and property - are, in the
abstract, compellingly attractive. So much so that the progressive critics
of libertarianism rarely dispute this triad of principles - in the
abstract. But the libertarians, along with the progressives,
embrace two other principles, "the like liberty principle," and “the no harm
principle,” and on closer inspections, we find that these principles prove
to be the undoing of the regressive and libertarian ideology. For the
unregulated exercise of the "right to property" can threaten the life,
liberty and property of others, as in the case of the segregation laws in the American
south prior to the enactment of the “liberal” public accommodation laws. In
general, the powerful and wealthy individual's "freedom to choose" is
routinely found to constrain the same freedom of others and to cause harm to
others. Then, as one attempts to comprehend this tangle of inconsistent and
competing rights and claims, one discovers what most students of human
society, psychology and history already know and that defenders of political
progressivism affirm: that human beings are not merely isolated bundles of
"preferences" with uncompromising “rights,” but rather are fundamentally
social creatures. Accordingly, one also discovers that successful human
communities are characterized, not simply by competition and market
exchanges, but also by shared ideals and the paradoxical achievement of
individual self-fulfillment through self-sacrifice and other-directed
In short, the libertarian pillar of regressivism fails, not
simply because it is
wrong, but because it is also insufficiently and over-simplistically right. It
correctly celebrates the rights of life, liberty and property, and then
fails to examine the conflicts and paradoxes that issue from these rights.
Its “one size fits all” solution is privatization of all assets and
property, with recourse to the courts if and when an individual’s
utilization of his property (e.g., through pollution or nuisance) damages
the interests of his neighbor. This libertarian solution fails to appreciate
that a just system of adjudication of conflicting rights and claims of
presumably equal citizens would necessarily restore much of the very
governmental structure that the libertarians would abolish and that the
liberals defend. This bold progressivist rebuttal requires an argument,
which I will provide in the following chapter.
If the libertarian scheme of free markets, absolute property rights will not
suffice to protect the rights of all citizens, then what will?
a modest, if familiar, proposal. Let the public in general establish an
agent to act in its behalf, and as the guarantor of the commonly held
values and aspirations of the polity. And then let that agent first
determine and then enforce rules for the optimal sustainable use of the
necessarily common resources (e.g. the atmosphere, the hydrological cycle,
migrating wildlife, etc.) and public goods (an educated work force, just
political institutions, domestic tranquility) . And if the public is not
satisfied with how that agent is acting in its behalf, it then has the right
to replace that agent with another.
Such a system is in fact in place: the "agent" is called "government," the
rules are called “law and regulation," and the system of checks against the
abuse of power is called "democracy." In the US Constitution, as well as the
supreme law of numerous other liberal democracies, the freedom and integrity
of the individual (i.e., one's rights to life, liberty and property) are
protected, even from "the tyranny of the majority." But these assurances by
the government will not suffice for the regressives. They assume a priori
that "government," even popularly elected and under the rule of law, simply
must behave as if it were an occupying foreign power. This, they tell us, is
the source of all our problems.
As I have argued in the foregoing, and will argue further, the regressive and libertarian doctrines of social atomism,
unfettered free markets, and unconfined personal liberty, bear morally
atrocious and practically unmanageable implications. In contrast, these
implications are avoided by the progressive assumptions, developed and
defended earlier: (a) that human
beings are essentially social creatures, (b) that an unrestricted and
unregulated "free market" has consequences that are unjust and morally
that because unregulated markets result in monopolies, they are
self-eliminating, (d) that in readily identifiable instances, advantages to each result in ruin
for all, (e) that, conversely, advantages to all exact sacrifices upon each
(e.g., taxes), and finally (f) that, accordingly, optimal social policies
are assessed from “the moral point of view” – from the perspective of the
“ideal disinterested spectator.” Accordingly, the liberal concludes, human
excellence, social harmony and, yes, personal liberty for all, can best be
accomplished through the agency of a government, "checked" and "balanced" to
prevent abuses, answerable to the people,
and through the rule of law, applied impartially and equally to all.
Admittedly, the progressive’s liberal democracy and
regulated capitalism is not perfect -- nor is any human institution under
the sun. But an anecdotal inventory of the shortcomings of public
regulation, still less a dogmatic a priori dismissal thereof does not, by
itself, constitute a repudiation of the existing system.. What is required
is a clear and persuasive presentation of a better alternative. This the
regressives have not provided us. Nor can they, so long as anyone pays more
than casual attention to human psychology, enduring moral precepts, and the
lessons of history.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
This quotation is totally accurate. It was transcribed
from Reagan's voice, broadcast over National Public Radio, May 30, 1985.
Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge