Sunday, November 9, 2014


The word ‘statism’ does not occur frequently in ordinary conversation, and even in political discussions it is not common. But this word identifies an idea which has a measurable impact on the world.

Various reference books will define ‘statism’ in different ways. Statism is the notion that whichever question or need or problem a citizen may have, the state has the answer, or the state is the answer.

Statism begins with sentiments about what the government can do for citizens, but gradually morphs into questions about what the citizen can do for the government. President Kennedy famously encouraged people to think about “what you can do for your country” - statism conceptually reverses that phrase into “what you can do for your government.”

In statist thinking, Lincoln’s “government for the people” meets it opposite: “people for the government.”

Because statism begins, however, by presenting itself as a benign or even beneficial effort to help people by means of government action, its true nature is not immediately seen. People of honest good will embrace social programs which are designed to help the poor.

But as the nature of the world works its inevitable way, sincere efforts to help society’s vulnerable members are exploited by cynical bureaucrats who understand that they can receive steady paychecks for administering social programs, whether or not those programs actually help anyone.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition of statism:

The theory or system of social organization in which the State has substantial centralized control over a nation's social and economic affairs.

While an effort to offer social benefits is almost always part of the justification offered for giving ever more controlling power to state - which is the same as taking power away from the people - , the anticipated benefits are often replaced with outright harm to the very social classes which one hoped to help by means of some statist scheme.

The programs which were introduced as ways to help the poor reveal themselves to be programs which actually hurt the poor, and take freedom away from all social classes, rich or poor.

Taxation in any form is, in the final analysis, a reduction of individual civil liberty. Mark Levin, who served as chief of staff for the United States Attorney General, writes:

In the name of “economic justice” and “equality” the Statist creates the perception of class struggle through a variety of interventions, including the “progressive” income tax. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx wrote, “In the most advanced countries the following will be pretty generally applicable: a heavy progressive or graduated income tax.”

Decisions about funding are observable and quantifiable. If the foundational purpose of a government is to protect the lives, freedoms, and property of its citizens, the defense programs would be seen as a priority. Instead, however, defense spending fell from 70% of federal outlays in the mid-1950s, to 46% at the height of the Vietnam War, to 28% during the so-called “Reagan Buildup,” to 19% during the “war on terror.”

Meanwhile, spending on programs which verifiably harm the poor - those would be programs which claim to help the poor - has increased. The language surrounding such programs has moved from unintentionally ironic to Orwellian doublespeak. A range of social programs have increased both urban and rural poverty.

Programs like food stamps, now part of EBT, have decreased nutrition for the poor and created “food deserts” in major urban areas. Medicare and Medicaid have decreased both the quality and the quantity of healthcare available to senior citizens and to low-income families, and has trimmed their ability to make independent decisions about their medical treatments.

The more the government funds programs to help the poor, the more the poor are harmed. This dynamic has a twofold root: good intentions gone wrong, in which a sincere desire to help the poor has been stymied by administrative incompetence, and cynical bureaucrats, who merely see a chance for a steady paycheck.

Scholar William Voegeli documents how funding is directed largely to programs which do not, and cannot, help their intended beneficiaries:

That amount has increased steadily, under Democrats and Republicans, during booms and recessions. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, federal welfare state spending was 58 percent larger in 1993 when Bill Clinton became president than it had been 16 years before when Jimmy Carter took the oath of office. By 2009, when Barack Obama was inaugurated, it was 59 percent larger than it had been in 1993. Overall, the outlays were more than two-and-a-half times as large in 2013 as they had been in 1977. The latest Census Bureau data, from 2011, regarding state and local programs for “social services and income maintenance,” show additional spending of $728 billion beyond the federal amount. Thus the total works out to some $3 trillion for all government welfare state expenditures in the U.S., or just under $10,000 per American. That figure does not include the cost, considerable but harder to reckon, of the policies meant to enhance welfare without the government first borrowing or taxing money and then spending it. I refer to laws and regulations that require some citizens to help others directly, such as minimum wages, maximum hours, and mandatory benefits for employees, or rent control for tenants.

Government-organized social programs are necessarily subject to inefficiencies, incompetence, and corruption. These characteristics plague any public-sector endeavor.

While the programs to help the poor are necessarily ineffective, statist tax schemes are quite effective at harming citizens. Mark Levin writes:

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that when measuring household taxes (income taxes and employee Social Security contributions), the United States “has the most progressive tax system and collects the largest share of taxes from the richest 10 percent of the population,” placing a heavier tax burden on high-income households than other industrialized nations do. The latest Congressional Budget Office figures show that the top 1 percent of income earners in the United States paid 39 percent of the federal income taxes while earning 18 percent of the pretax income and the top 5 percent of income earners paid 61 percent of federal income taxes while earning 31 percent of pretax income. Indeed, the top 40 percent of income earners paid 99.4 percent of federal income taxes. The bottom 40 percent of income earners paid no federal income tax and received 3.8 percent from the tax system. And the middle 20 percent of income earners pay only 4.4 percent of federal income taxes.

Citizens of good will see the fairness in paying taxes for the communal good. A reasonable voter

does not object to wealthier individuals paying more to finance the legitimate functions of government, the government has grown well beyond the limits placed on it by the Constitution, particularly since the New Deal. Redistributing wealth is a central objective of the progressive income tax.

But there is another purpose to graduated or progressive tax structures: to emphasize different levels of wealth among the citizens, and to pit them against each other in class struggle. Bureaucrats and elected politicians can, if they forego ethical considerations, profit from creating divisiveness among the citizens:

For the Statist, there must be a class struggle and it must be a never-ending struggle, for it is perhaps his most valuable weapon in his war against the individual, the free market, and ultimately the civil society. The Statist, therefore, not only opposes efforts to eliminate the progressive income tax, including such alternatives as the FAIR tax (a national sales tax) of the flat tax (a flat-rate income tax), he opposes most any income tax reductions that might weaken the “class structure.”

There is an alternative to the statist nightmare, in which the government takes wealth from citizens to fund programs which do not benefit those who most need help, and in which the government controls ever larger segments of private life which pitting groups of citizens against each other.

A more humane, and more effective, option is private-sector charity. Organizations across the United States operate effectively, without government funding, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, scholarships for needy students and daily care for low-income senior citizens.

Such private-sector charity routinely has much less corruption and inefficiency. Overhead is also lower, and in many cases, reduced to near-zero levels when individuals volunteer and donate their time and effort, as well as their money.

Private sector charities are not only a measurable and significant way to benefit the poor, but they can also preserve our civil liberties.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Good Intentions, Bad Results

Decisions about spending reveal actual priorities, whatever the alleged priorities may be. A man might talk about how much he values healthy food, but if the records show that he spends much of his money on donuts and bologna, his true preference has been shown.

The same is true of government spending. Political leaders may express deep concern for the poor, but if they allocate millions and billions of dollars in programs which actually make the condition of the economic underclasses worse, the true priorities of these bureaucrats make themselves manifest.

Programs which harm low-income citizens do so even if they are presented as strategies to help the poor.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the United States has experienced a series of actions which were labeled with ambitious phrases like “War on Poverty” and “Great Society.” In reality, these programs not only failed to help the poor, but they measurably made the lot of the lower class worse.

The “food stamp” program has worsened the nutrition of both the urban and the rural poor, and created “food deserts” in major cities. Social Security and Medicare have worsened the economic status of elderly citizens, reduced their independence, and brought them under more government control.

The “war on drugs” has increased illegal drug smuggling, domestic production, sales, and consumption. The federal government’s attempts to raise the quality of education have merely worsened the standards of the nation’s schools.

Many people with sincerely good intentions worked to promote and enforce these programs. But sincerity, intentions, and compassion are not the same as observable and measurable results.

A program may have the best of intentions, but why continue to fund it if it produces the very opposite of its stated goals? Although people of genuine goodwill may have instituted the program, legions of cynical bureaucrats will receive comfortable paychecks from it. They have an interest in keeping such programs in place, even when the programs fail to help the intended beneficiaries - even when the programs harm the intended beneficiaries.

Thus it is that the machinations of bureaucrats keep funding flowing to institutionalized failure. Scholar William Voegeli writes:

America’s welfare state has been growing steadily for almost a century, and is now much bigger than it was at the start of the New Deal in 1932, or at the beginning of the Great Society in 1964. In 2013 the federal government spent $2.279 trillion — $7,200 per American, two-thirds of all federal outlays, and 14 percent of the Gross Domestic Product — on the five big program areas that make up our welfare state: 1. Social Security; 2. All other income support programs, such as disability insurance or unemployment compensation; 3. Medicare; 4. All other health programs, such as Medicaid; and 5. All programs for education, job training, and social services.

The clear trend in government is to fund those programs which both fail to help their intended recipients and which harm their intended recipients. The government has funded almost exclusively those anti-poverty programs which in fact increase poverty.

The other side of the coin is that programs which help citizens are prone to funding cuts. Given that the unambiguous purpose of a government is to protect the lives, freedoms, and properties of its citizens, it is at least counterintuitive that defense spending in the United States has been repeatedly cut. In the mid-1950s, defense spending was 15% of GDP. Since then, it has been chopped to 9.5% at the height of the Vietnam War, to 6.2% during the so-called “Reagan Buildup,” to less than 4% during the “war on terror.”

One need only to pose the rhetorical question whether the lives, freedoms, and property are more or less secure as a result.

A similar decline in security for the ordinary citizen has resulted from cuts to funding direct police presence. While total police funding has in some cases actually increased, posting of armed police to patrols in urban or suburban neighborhoods has in many cases decreased.

While it is true that violent crime, by some measures, has decreased in the last decade or two, it has increased in the last fifty years or so.

There is a sort of emotional satisfaction that a truly compassionate person feels when directing funding to a social program. But that satisfaction is an illusion if that program, despite its facade, fails to help people.

There is an unfortunate interplay between sincerely compassionate people and insincere bureaucrats. Good intentions can be exploited by public-sector careerists. People of genuine goodwill are exploited by governments.

A promising alternative is offered by private-sector charities. Meaningful and measurable help is offered by organizations like Ypsilanti’s Hope Clinic, which does not squander donated funds on overhead.

Rural and urban residents of all races and religions can receive significant and observable benefits from private sector charities which efficiently use the funds voluntarily donated by citizens.