Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Good morning, Mr Dallas. You have three points remaining."

[Since Ian and I are going back and forth with replies too large for comment boxes, I'm responding here to his post on Government, cars, and maintenance: ]

Consider that for a hell of a lot of us, government is more like a gun than like a car: it does a few things well, many things badly, and quite a lot of things catastrophically badly, and far too many people want to use it to tell others what to do. A gun is most effective and controllable when you don't also ask it to be a corkscrew, a phone, and a bidet, so you keep it simple and focussed on a small number of tasks.

The problem with expansive government is that, quite frankly, you end up with serious problems that elections may be unable to fix. It's all well and good to demand that people get involved in selecting better candidates in the primaries, but when government is literally involving itself in thousands of aspects of private life, it's impossible to get the kind of consensus necessary to deal with most of them, even given an infinite number of primary candidates. Every voter ends up deciding what subset of abuses is important enough to fight to defend against, and only the most "popular" ever get a referendum. And by the time you've fought off restrictions on gay marriage; two more major, five dozen more middlin' and two hundred more minor abuses have been enshrined in law, and the minor ones never get enough attention individually to repeal, so they pile up forever until they glaciate.

I'm not saying I want a a car that can only do 25; I'm saying I want a car that does transportation really, really well, and don't want to be forced to pay extra and limit my options with the forced addition of a thousand extra mandatory features from the major to the trivial, only a few of which I want. Competition only solves that problem so much when every car is a fairly random thousand-feature set. (And in this metaphor, I even get to unilaterally choose the car!)

Similarly, I want a government that's really, really good at catching and punishing thieves and murderers, and fucking up countries that try to invade. And if it sticks pretty closely to those realms, I have faith in our ability to control it. Making it an enormous, sprawling package deal that tells me who I may marry, how long my rifle's barrel must be, what substances I may put in my body, whether I may refrain from buying medical insurance, how much interest I may take on when borrowing money, what terms I may accept in an employment contract, how much of my paycheck I must donate to which poorly-run mandatory charities, how much of my dignity I may retain while travelling by air, whether I may have sex for money, what I may build on my property, what kind of light bulbs I may use, what countries' cigars I may smoke, which year my ancient Roman coin collection must stop at, what public places I may not photograph, whether I may sell my extra kidney, how I may and may not encrypt my data, and how much grape juice I'm allowed to ferment each year is not a recipe for a free society, however vigilant and involved the people.

Assuming that you can make a perfect system that will run forever without maintenance is foolish; a vigilant populace committed to freedom is a non-negotiable requirement for a free society. But reality demands that government be kept small enough to be within that population's ability to peacefully control, and our modern good-idea-let's-make-it-a-law style of government simply isn't.


  1. I think one of the major issues is we've gotten away from crafting laws to punish transgressions (run someone over because you were drunk) and way to far into prohibition (don't drive after having more than X number of drinks) and trying to legislate morality (wrong to drink period).

    We need to get back to the roots of our system; do your thing and as long as it doesn't harm me, I'm okay with that.
    See, I recognize that I'm as much of the problem as anyone else.

    I think we can get started moving that way by telling the government to butt out of many of our rights; marriage, self defense, cars -- I wouldn't consider not wearing my seat belt but the .gov has no business telling me I have to.

    Great post

  2. The government we have is well over the line into disabled safety mechanisms and perversions of freedom.

    Don't get too focused on my analogy - in fact I'm beginning to think it was a poor one. More verbose reply to come