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Changeup: What If Citizens Planned Government Instead?


By Leslee Kulba-About a week ago, Asheville City Council canceled their February 11 meeting due to a “light agenda.” Then, the Buncombe County Commissioners announced they would reschedule their snowed-out retreat for that day. Then, the Honorable Senator Martin Nesbitt died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. The commissioners decided it was more important to pay their respects, and the retreat was canceled.

Normally, coverage of local government meetings is replete with absurdity and shock value. In the absence of a formal meeting, this column shall be a wish list of what coulda-shoulda been said, what hopefully some aspiring candidates will consider saying, and what our Founding Fathers intended for making America great.

Before going any further, it is important to acknowledge the bad rap the Founders are getting these days. We are told they were misogynist racists, and so everything else they say must be dismissed. One must wonder how such fallacious reasoning ever found root. We’re all human, and as such, we are all right sometimes and wrong other times. Often, when we feel we are righter than those around us, we perceive those around us as not smart enough to know whether we are right or wrong. We can only try to use our best judgment as we try to improve our stewardships.

Ludwig von Mises shared great wisdom in his book Human Action Something there is in humans that seeks something greater than self to tell us the truth. Sometimes, relying on others feels safer than making one’s own decisions. Adam Levine-Weinberg this week posted an article for the Motley Fool on bad boardroom decisions being made by Sears. He attributed the problem to groupthink.

“Groupthink,” he said,” causes members of the group to seek consensus rather than critically evaluating all of the available facts. Evidence that leaders’ preferred courses of action are not working (or are not likely to work) gets suppressed, either through self-censorship or due to pressure from other members of the group. Flaws in the group’s decisions go unrecognized until they are so obvious that it is too late.”

Yes, it is easy to believe electing people to office gives us license to aside our own responsibility for making decisions. Representative government is helpful in that a few are delegated as point-persons for due-diligence research. But somehow that often gets distorted into a perception that those in power have some kind of omniscience. Nobody would admit this, but the arrogance coming from the other side of the dais can give those in the peanut gallery the impression that the elected folks know best what to do with The Wee People.

On the subject of human omniscience, von Mises wrote, “To acting man, the future is hidden. If man knew the future, he would not have to choose and would not act. He would be like an automaton, reacting to stimuli without any will of his own.” This is echoed in the works of Austrian economist F.A. Hayek and in the quotable quote from Kenneth H. Blanchard, author of  The One Minute Manager, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

Accepting that each person has his own perspectives and priorities, it makes sense to allow each the ability to, as they used to say, work out his own salvation in his own way and in his own time. The only limit, of course, being that one’s rights end where another’s begin. This is totally lost in most conversations in local government meetings. Instead of living and letting live, there is the sense that planners know best how to organize people. The reality is that planning is arbitrary. Nobody knows the future. Worse, it has been said that planning only affects the little guy. The wealthy and connected can afford to get their zonings changed. In the case of Biltmore Farms, they can change legislation to build as they please.

Whenever our leaders talk about their visions, goals, and strategic plans, there is a sense that they are looking at their constituents as elements to be planned upon. There are advantages to societies working together for common ends. For example, just as there are 50 ways to leave your lover, there were just as many ways for the Israelites to get out of Egypt. But it was so much easier to require only one parting of the Red Sea, rather than a helicopter lift for one guy, a tunnel for another, etc.

By the same token, working together should not be a scenario where some self-appointed expert lords it over his loyal subjects. One man might fear the Final Judgment as much as the next one fears tidal waves from melting glaciers. Who are we to hold others responsible for fulfilling our visions?

The classic liberal bestows no special privileges. It is the role of good government to listen, but when government gives one special-interest group an advantage others do not have, he creates an incentive for the have-nots marginalized thereby to demand relief, and so on, and so on in a vicious redistributive cycle. Redistribution schemes net positive for legislators, lobbyists, lawyers, and bureaucrats; but the productive sector nets negative.

If governments cannot create wealth, then economic development incentives cannot work. Elected leaders abusing their powers to appoint themselves engines of redistribution only give what they also take. They just hire PR agents to hide the part about taking. They don’t gift cash, we are told, they gift breaks from the infinitude of tax revenues the gargantuan project is going to burst forth in supernova fashion.

People who try to convince government to give them stuff are pitching sales. Some are experts. The use of IMPLAN software for projecting the economic impact of grants awarded to large corporations has been exposed as harboring a systematic bias. It pays no attention to lost opportunity costs. Presenters then “prove” with pie charts that the government money is going to work like a perpetual motion machine, creating something from nothing.

Related to this are the oft-repeated pitches for projects in terms of the prosperity they will produce. The fact is, legislation cannot produce outcomes. It is foolish to say a new building is going to attract tourists, a monument is going to create community spirit, or an economic development incentive grant is going to create jobs.

A grant to a large corporation does not create prosperity, it only gives the corporation more money. A fact often ignored in political discussions is that people, unlike lifeless molecules, have a pesky propensity to try to survive. If taxes get too high, they will evade. If regulations get too tight, the wealthy will seek special privileges, and the poor will turn to the black market. The monkish among us will bravely comply.

In the principle that bears his name, French chemist Henry Louis Le Chatelier declared that a system undergoing stress will shift so as to relieve the stress. In other words, bad programs are not going to look as ugly as they would be in an “all other factors equal” scenario because people are finding creative workarounds.

This is one reason anecdotes are useless in objective political discussions. True, several anecdotes could lead to a general principle. But economics is way too complex to draw much in the way of conclusions by only looking at only one variable. What matters more is principles. Wise leaders should do what is fair, and thus let people reap the natural rewards of trying to do the right thing.

Taking this one step further, former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, during the Cold War Era, asked, “Why, then, do Americans bake more bread, manufacture more shoes, and assemble more TV sets than Russians do? They do so precisely because our government does not guarantee these things. If it did, there would be so many accompanying taxes, controls, regulations, and political manipulations that the productive genius that is America’s would soon be reduced to the floundering level of waste and inefficiency now found behind the Iron Curtain.”

What good government would do is facilitate the good efforts of all members of society. That is, road design can conceivably be an appropriate role of government. Sometimes natural monopolies are best managed by government. In fact, a believer in fair competition might be rightly accused of unfair bias if he left government out of the bidding process. Regardless, people who design roads should not be trying to force people out of their cars or force them to take longer routes, or even justify budgets for their departments and contractors. Roads should help people get where they need to go. Just this year, a couple communities in Western North Carolina have stood up to the DOT”s plans for road “improvements” when the locals were at a loss to see what the inconveniences helped.

Long, long ago, John Locke declared, “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law, and is not, as we are told, ‘a liberty for every man to do what he lists.’” For who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him? But a liberty to dispose and order freely as he lists his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely to follow his own.”

But what about the poor and the dispossessed in our community? Every week, we hear how children in Western North Carolina are food-insecure, living in food deserts. Despite food stamps and a multitude of soup kitchens, children still don’t know where their next meal is coming from or whether they will eat any given day, or so we are told.

All the while, the poor children are dressed in the latest of fashions. They have their Androids, Wi, and Nook. They even are often seen eating. They are not as bad off as the Calcutta poor or disease-ridden children in Sub-Saharan Africa. The newspapers don’t tell us how many children in these mountains suffer kwashiorkor. In fact, it is the children of the working class who run around like snot-nosed raggamuffins. They are the ones who can’t get subsidized trips to the emergency room, can’t afford dance class or league sports, and who do not qualify for giveaways of only the gently-used variety.

Henry Grady Weaver, who worked himself up to Director of Customer Research for General Motors, back when that company was a private enterprise, shared a hard truth about poverty. “Most of the major ills of the world have been caused by well-meaning people who ignored the principle of individual freedom, except as applied to themselves, and who were obsessed with fanatical zeal to improve the lot of mankind-in-the-mass through some pet formula of their own. . . . The harm done by ordinary criminals, murderers, gangsters, and thieves is negligible in comparison with the agony inflicted upon human beings by the professional ‘do-gooders,’ who attempt to set themselves up as gods on earth and who would ruthlessly force their views on all others – with the abiding assurance that the end justifies the means.”

In the end, everybody who is not mentally disturbed, by definition, wants a beautiful world where people interact in fun and pleasant ways. The difference is in the way it is brought to pass. One camp believes the end can best be achieved by letting everybody have their own voice as they wend their way through the mystery of life. Then, sundry elitist groups act as if they have the secret of the universe, and if only they could attain a seat of power to let them force their will on others, rainbows and butterflies would bless their little Smart Growth villages as their food policy conquers the obesity crisis and humanism triumphs over the superstitious, gun-toting Christians.

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