A perfect statement about the balance of power between government, citizens and business

As I’ve mentioned before, almost without exception, my “real me” facebook friends are liberal. This is true both for the friends I trace back to my school years and for the ones who are part of my daily life today.

Occasionally, I like to tweak my facebook friends a little, not with “in your face” confrontations, but simply by dropping into my updates news squiblets they might not know living, as they do, in their hermetically-sealed New York Times/NPR/New Yorker world. Recently, I linked to a news item about Coakley’s fundraiser in D.C., which was attended by Big Pharm and Health Insurance lobbyists. I suggested, politely, that this indicated that the cat was out of the bag about who the real beneficiaries of health care reform will be.

That little post, and my one sentence, yielded very interesting information: one of my high school friends, who is now an entrepreneur, is a classic libertarian. He and another of my friends, an incredibly sweet and kind, but ultra liberal attorney, have been having an extremely intense, but still polite, back and forth about the virtues of the health care bill.

My high school friend thinks, as you and I do, that reform is necessary, but that the bill is fatally corrupt, especially to the extent it vests power in the government. My lawyer friend thinks that the bill’s flaws, which he acknowledges, are worth it so as to invest power in the government, and take it away from the evil business establishment. (Either he has lost track of the fact that, right now, the evil business establishment is rooting for the cash flow the bill sends it or he believes, probably correctly, that the government, once in the driver’s seat, will quickly invest all power in itself.) In response, my high school friend wrote the following defense of individual liberties. I only wish I could have written something half as good:

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Think about what government is. It’s a giant corporation, with incredible powers… Confiscatory taxation. The power to create and enforce laws, giving it complete control over your life, liberty, and property. Military and police powers and personnel to enforce its will. The ONLY thing standing in its way in trampling every right and freedom under the boot of whatever the little kings and queens in Washington DC believe is best is our Constitution. I don’t fetishize that, but it’s a literal truth — the only thing that maintains our freedoms is the extent to which citizens take their rights seriously. It is absolutely critical to our actual personal well-being that we vigilantly limit the size and power of govt. Because it is so much more powerful and dangerous than any corporation, by 1000x.

Against that in your theory are business corporations, which have basically zero power over consumers or citizens. They can offer services and hope people buy. That’s it. The only way they have any more power than that is when they make corrupt deals with government, to put the power of government behind them. It happens all the time, and it’s bad. Both sides are at fault; they are often the same people. I happen to have some direct insight into corruption of that kind in Treasury, for example, and it’s disgusting, and incredibly expensive to all of us, enriching a few. But the problem occurs when we let government act without transparency, and take powers it does not rightfully have. The current health care bill makes that much much worse, with a horrible system imposed on businesses and individuals, preventing other better systems from evolving. It is much worse than nothing, and is unconstitutional. It would be much better to remove the existing government constraints on real and effective competition.

I will say that government does have a real role in preventing corporations from harming people by usurping common property… i.e. by polluting, or selling secretly unsafe products. So entities like the EPA, the FDIC, and the FDA make perfect sense, and there are others as well, that implement our social compact, governing our common resources while enabling the maximum possible freedom. I’m a big fan of National Parks — setting aside national treasures from the potential for harm — and similarly a fan of the national highway system and the Internet. As long as those initiatives or research efforts are approved by voters in simple proposals — we are willing to pay X as a common tax-funded program because it is a wise infrastructure investment that is better commonly owned than privately owned, and it would be hard to get private investment on that scale. But of course we properly let private alternatives evolve too — toll roads, private networks, alternate currencies, etc. — and these private innovations often work better. I believe the role of govt in all cases is to establish standards, and then let private business and individuals operate as much as possible, limiting it’s own scope, powers, and need for taxation as much as possible.

It’s nice to know that such people are out there. I liked this guy a great deal in high school — he was nice in a way that often eluded urban teenage boys — and I deeply respect him now.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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