You Can’t Tell Me What to Think

Or, The American Autocratic Experiment.

We like to think of it as the “democratic” experiment. After all, we elect representatives to run our government. We don’t have any royalty. Winston Churchill, apparently quoting someone else noted, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

I had it stuck in my head that Alexis de Tocqueville had said this, and looking through his lines on BrainyQuote, found all kinds of observations that are still remarkably accurate in the 21st century. I assumed it was him because of his book, Democracy in America. This is going back on my reading list.

In addition to whatever organized religion we do (or do not) ascribe to in this country, we also share in the secular religion of democracy, and our sacred texts are, of course, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Sure, some smart person might bring up the separation of powers, or more particularly “checks and balances,” when arguing for or against the idea of an imperial presidency. But then someone else counters that the Constitution says nothing about checks and balances and that you have to go to personal letters of the framers, and those are practically apocrypha.

I digress. The bit that I’ve been stuck on is the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, plus the purely proverbial “a man’s home is his castle.” Taken together, sacrament and proverb, they push toward an interpretation of “you can’t tell me what to do.” The Roberts Court, our current Supreme Court, continues the Rehnquist trend of pushing back federal rights in favor of states’ rights. The Bill of Rights continues a line toward the individual and away from the federal government.

I can practice any religion, or none. I can carry a gun. I don’t have to incriminate myself (the “fifth,” your honor). The extension of this is that while I elect someone to govern my country, I don’t elect anyone to govern me. It’s not that I’m not necessarily responsible for my actions, but I’m not necessarily responsible to anyone for them.

I’m bringing this up because at the moment, culturally, we seem to be on a collision course between these impulses, fostered, I would argue, by scaremongers like Glenn Beck. YOU are threatened, yes, YOU. What are YOU going to do? Because it’s within YOUR power. YOU are responsible to NO ONE. We do have royalty, it turns out. It's Us. The Constitution says so, and it’s our most holy document.


The Impediment of Infrastructure

When I was in grad school, Alan Burdette, for whom I was a TA, joked about the radial Catholic E.F. Schumacher and recommended his book, Small is Beautiful (note there are three hyperlinks here). I haven’t read it, I’m sorry to say, even though it’s been on my reading list since then.

There’s a popular meme regarding governments and lemonade stands, many in reference to shutting down kids’ entrepreneurial spirit, some in reference to “I wouldn’t trust X to run Y.” The scorn that I hear when I read this statement makes me wonder what it is about government that suddenly drives people toward incompetence. It’s not like our first MBA president did a bang-up job at regulating or nurturing the economy.

John Steele Gordon summarizes the problem succinctly as: Politicians need headlines. He spends more time on it broadly (that’s just item #2) in this article.

I’m adding a second category of problem, because I think Mr. Gordon is a dyed-in-the-wool ideologue of the “free market is everything” school, and myself, I rather like Jonathan Tasini’s turn of phrase: “the ‘free market’ is just a marketing term.”

It’s not that business is inherently good and government is inherently bad, respectively, at running businesses. Part of their problem is size. We trumpet the idea of “economy of scale,” because it means that we can make expensive things more cheaply. It makes things more accessible. To make this work, we have to develop infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the reason we can all drive cars and trucks all over the country – all over almost any country for that matter. In this case, infrastructure includes roads, bridges, gas stations, not to mention the folks who manufacture those vehicles, the smaller companies that create the widgets that go inside them, that fix them, that exist to counter known problems.

Infrastructure is the reason why developing a non-gas-powered car is going to be a nightmare. Every related interest group is going to line up against new fuel types under all kinds of logic – it’s too expensive, it’ll put gas station owners out of business, it’s impractical.

The bigger the business, the greater the infrastructure – as a rule. There are ways to be flexible, such as sourcing out your R&D. But just to be clear – when we’re talking about how great the market is, we’re talking about how successful a big company is and how nimble a small company is. The problem is that we tend to think those companies are the same thing.