This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Jon Sanders, policy analyst and research editor for the John Locke Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jonpsanders.
Why do people seek public office? The temptation is ever-present for those with the reins of government to use that power for whatever problem (real or imaginary) that appears on the horizon. As the old saw goes, “When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
Without a principled approach to the proper uses of government (for that is the hammer analog), those who would use that power to better their communities often end up making things worse, hammering away at everything they deem a problem, regardless of whether it has any business being addressed by government. But when government acts, the very nature of the act usually precludes anyone else from acting, including those with the right tools for the job.
The current debate over health-care reform is a prime example of this one-tool-fits-all approach. The quality of health care in the United States is the finest in the world, but the cost structure is beset with problems. There are numerous areas of concern, but the thousand-plus pages of plans produced by Democrats (the White House has yet to offer one) are an execrable Hobson’s choice. They are studiously ignoring the manifold free-market solutions that have been proposed for years; q.v., the excellent summary put forth by Dr. Arthur Laffer in a paper for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. They are also shortchanging the American public by not debating individual facets of reform — having separate bills and separate debates, working their way through the problems systematically the way a business would in re-evaluating itself.
The approach has been, unfortunately but predictably, one of that arrogance particular to those with governmental authority. This is the plan; take it or leave it. (In practice, however, the choice is take it or be slandered by your elected representatives.)
When I spoke around the state as part of the Patients First bus tour, I had the occasion to speak to a protester outside one stop. During the rally, she stood to the side holding her sign, being neither disrespectful nor disruptive, but well in view. I approached her afterward and thanked her for being there, even though she disagreed with us, because, as I told her, as a huge believer in First Amendment freedoms I appreciated seeing them in action.
She spoke of her situation. She was recently unemployed and, having had skin cancer, is having great difficulty finding health insurance. She was not convinced that Obamacare was the solution, but she was in favor of some public solution, and she asked me (I had spoken of several patient-centered reforms not in the bills) if I knew all that should be done.
I told her that no, I did not know all the solutions. But I went further, offering her something I had first discussed with a candidate for local office. I don’t know all the answers, I said, but neither do the politicians. That is why I prize humility in public officials; I want a politician with the humility to understand that just because he personally cannot imagine a solution to a problem, that doesn’t mean that somebody else hasn’t realized one or can’t. What I fear is government action taken as a way to be seen (for politicians love to be seen) to address a confounding problem that does nothing good by way of solutions but that puts significant obstacles in the path of the creative entrepreneurs and innovators who have solutions to offer.
I want politicians who see themselves not as oracles or fonts of utopian fixes, but as stewards in charge of keeping a government dedicated to preserving and not usurping the God-given rights of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s own labor.
The protester found herself in agreement with me on that point. The local politician had looked at me as if I’d told him to take a camel ride through a needle’s eye.
The power of government is an awesome power; it is the legal power to coerce, to force, to bend people to your will, to limit choices, and it should accordingly be used sparingly. It should not be used as a placeholder in lieu of actual solutions. Nor should it be employed for politicians to claim they are “doing something” about a thorny problem for which they have no real solution.
When such a problem arises, those in stewardship of government power should take it as an opportunity to witness the genius inherent in a free people as they search out solutions in abundance. Government’s role is not to seize more power, take away responsibilities, and remove people’s capabilities to act, but instead to remove roadblocks, cull bureaucracy, and tear down the obstacles they’ve previously erected. In a free society, people, not government, are the ultimate resource.