Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- March, 2002

Mr. DeLay Goes to Washington

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

Published in The Democratic Underground, March 8, 2002

Adapted for inclusion in Chapter Seven of Conscience of a Progressive.



Who is better qualified to spend your money,
you or the government in Washington?

George W. Bush

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.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

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.")

"Who is better qualified to spend your money you or the federal government?" George Bush' challenge 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.

And so we are led to ask: are we as individuals, or the government, better qualified to 

deliver the mail.
predict the weather
ensure that our food is safe to eat
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 money."

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.

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 frequencies, electronic chaos and cacophony would result.

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 eliminating "pests"? 

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 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 fair hearing. 

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 conservatives "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. 

One must be deliberately ignorant not to notice that we have traveled far along this road in the past two decades, as the (so called) "conservatives" have scored significant victories in their campaign against the "abuses of big government." Only an alert, outraged and active citizenry can undo the damage. 

Copyright 2001, by Ernest Partridge

We have much more to say about the benign functions of "big government," along with some reflections on the abuses of government, in our "Kill the Umpire." 

Libertarians argue that "the law of torts" (compensation for damages) is superior to government regulation as a means to deter assaults upon our individual rights to life, liberty and property. For a reply, see my "With Liberty for Some."|


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .