20th Century Dumb Government vs. 21st Century Smart Government

capitol hill

I overly flattered myself for many years by calling my political views “libertarian”, starting in the early 90s. I was careful to use the “small-l” libertarian, as opposed to the large-L Libertarian Party, mainly because of my lifelong antipathy toward guns and desire to ban virtually all of them. Yet I’ve always admired the masthead tagline that Reason Magazine still uses, “Free Minds and Free Markets”, and I’ve used it as a convenient, if often inaccurate, shorthand for how I like to think about things.

Free Minds effectively means, in my world, that the scope of my personal freedoms ends where yours begin, and vice-versa. This notion protects free speech, free assembly, the freedom to love & marry whom one wishes to, freedom of reproductive choice, and so on. Most of these major battles have been won in the US, or are currently in the process of being won.

Free Markets means, in my world, that government sets the basic ground rules for commerce, competition and trade, and a legal structure to govern them, and then gets out of the way. First-world economies from the United States to the Nordics to, at varying levels, Japan, Germany, France, Singapore, Canada and others underpin their societies with this core principle, with varying (though high) degrees of success.

Yet neither of those catchphrases says with certainty what the overarching purpose of government toward its people is, nor ought to be. I think free minds and free markets can easily be compatible with several definitions, and not always the most obvious 20th century mantra of “big government bad, small government good”. Dumb government is bad, and that’s what we often live under today in the United States, on many levels. This has some pretty scary repercussions that are playing themselves out in the news as we speak.

My unwillingness to further align myself with libertarians comes from a dawning realization of just how badly American government is failing Americans. This is not merely because of libertarian/conservative complaints of government’s size and scope (a scope which I believe to be too bloated in some areas, and far too callous and hands-off in others), but because the United States government is stuck in a 20th century paradigm of “what works”, and it’s flat-out not working. It needs to be fixed, not further abandoned.

The American Dream is sadly in the rear-view mirror for a growing number of Americans, and it’s our fault for perpetuating a status quo. Our 240-year experiment is in danger, and we’re letting it happen by not reinventing how government should work in our modern era – not the era we moved out of at the turn of the century.

We in the US have a very dumb government in 2016 that has created and perpetuated the seeds of its own demise. Authoritarian/know-nothing and left-wing populist presidential candidates, plus the likely dissolution of one of the country’s two long-lasting political parties are early (and ugly) harbingers. More will follow. To remain competitive in the world economy, the US needs to make urgent and necessary changes to its basic structures.

When liberal icon Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, his legacy was followed 35 years later by the first stirrings of conservative icon Ronald Reagan’s own legacy in 1980. Each man was, I believe, a necessary corrective for his time. 35 years after that, (36 to be precise) we’re now in need of a new narrative, one that’s neither traditionally liberal nor traditionally conservative nor even “centrist”. It is clear to me that we continue down our current narrative paths at great risk.

I don’t think my ideas for what constitutes smart government – which obviously aren’t all my ideas, and which are cobbled from years of observation, reading and listening – are necessarily Left, Right nor Center. Others may disagree. But just try to imagine a realistic path out of our current problems that don’t involve adoption of at least some combination of the following:

20th Century DUMB government

21st Century SMART government

Create and maintain a complex, convoluted federal tax code with thousands of exemptions, varying rates, targeted credits, countless loopholes – as well as the ability to easily “offshore” revenues to pay less taxes. Make the tax code so arcane that most citizens have to hire professionals to do their taxes.

Create a simple flat tax for both income and capital gains, which increases marginally by income level. No exemptions, tax credits nor loopholes. Taxes can be filled out on a postcard each year. Establish one flat tax for all businesses, regardless of size. Congress votes to raise or lower each upcoming year’s flat rates, based on projected domestic needs.

Allow citizens of the richest nation in history  to be bankrupted by their own healthcare needs, or to have to take a job they don’t want, merely to get health insurance for their families. Pretend this is nonetheless the system that works best for its citizens, because sometimes “wait times to see a doctor are shorter than in other countries”.

Sever the link between private employers and healthcare. Provide everyone with guaranteed, high-quality healthcare, regardless of income or personal situation. Make it a fundamental right for US citizens. Make payments to health professionals uniform, simple and predicable.

Staple on well-meaning and expensive health care reforms onto an existing Frankenstein’s Monster of a private employer/private insurer/public healthcare system, endangering the whole thing.

See above. Establish high-quality public healthcare with limited private supplements, as the successful economies of the UK, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Japan and countless others have done.

Let elected lawmakers draw up their own bizarre congressional districts, or let them appoint cronies who’ll do their bidding for them to preserve the status quo.

Turn existing county lines into voting districts, and let the population of those counties be represented proportionally in votes for Congress and other State offices

Pay public school teachers a barely liveable salary, thereby discouraging our best & brightest from teaching as a career, and driving them to private careers instead

Mandate a high ($70,000+) yearly starting wage for public school teachers, paid for by State and Federal taxes, with the same ability  for star achievers to get the same outsized raises they would in the private sector

Let teaching standards slip so low, whether out of need for new teachers, well-intentioned diversity requirements or otherwise, that thousands of ill-prepared, ultimately mediocre teachers are placed in front of American children every year

Require that American teachers graduate from tough, dedicated, academically challenging universities with high-threshold exit exam scores before being allowed to teach. Ensure that they’re placed in well-paid apprenticeships for at least 2 years before getting their own classrooms.

Make payment for their kids’ college something that families start saving for 18 years in advance (or don’t at all, because they don’t have the money), or that students themselves spend 20-30 years paying off once they’ve left college. Make college a wealth game, played by the wealthy, with scholarship scraps handed to the poor

Reengineer our already world-class universities & university faculties to create a system of free or low-cost, high-quality public universities, paid for by Federal and State taxes, just as most other industrialized, first-world nations do.  

Set up a system in which a traditional college education is virtually the only way to guarantee a healthy income over time, even when not everyone is cut out for it. Watch and wring our hands as students flounder, and/or enter low-wage, dead-end jobs out of high school, with few prospects for advancement – and then leave them to their fates

Create a national system of public vocational schools that run in parallel to the universities mentioned above. Allow students to choose their path – vocational school or traditional university – after high school. Fund this via Federal and State taxes.

Force new mothers (and/or fathers) with existing jobs to return to work within weeks of giving birth; to give up their careers entirely in order to care for their children, or to stick them in unregulated, low-quality day care while hoping for the best

Create a national system of subsidized paid parental leave and high-quality child care, based on successful (and beloved) models in the Nordic countries. Paid child care starts at Age 1, at which point both parents must return to work

Allow the mentally ill, drug-addicted and incapacitated to fend for themselves on our streets, whether because we’re “too humane” to tell them what to do, or because we don’t have the resources to help. Hide our heads in shame because we don’t know what to do

Establish a publicly-funded network of national treatment facilities for the mentally ill and drug-addicted, with humane care and recovery as the system’s desired outcome. Attendance is mandatory, at the discretion of trained health professionals, not police

Play favorites with private companies – allowing subsidies or tax credits for some but not for others – then cry foul when lobbyists run amok on Capitol Hill trying to buy votes

Write a new constitutional amendment that severs all links between government and private enterprise – except for procurement (i.e. when the government buys things to support military, domestic healthcare etc.). This includes farms, carmakers, textiles; cosmetology licensing – everything. Make penalties for lawmakers who violate this explicit and strong. Subsidies become a thing of the past.

Politics being “the art of the possible”, and democracy being messy, it’s clear that most of these proposals need to be taken on incrementally, with only a few being eligible for one-fell-swoop implementation. I’m hoping we start on them soon, and that we have most of these in place during the rest of my lifetime. Obviously, there are many others I’d recommend as well, but these are where I’d start, and where the reform needs are greatest and would be most impactful.

I think that these moves toward smarter government would do much to shore up American competitiveness and stave off American decline. It will increase the attractiveness of the country to outsiders, while also providing multiple levers for every American citizen to have a fair and honest chance to be autonomous, as well as give them the opportunity to be more free – not less – than they are today.

I would gladly trade a few extra % points of my own tax rate for a chance to smash inequality, create an un-shreddable safety net, virtually eliminate the IRS, create world-class public schools that are the envy of the world, elevate teaching to its rightful place in society, take government out of private enterprise, help society’s sickest members get their dignity back, restore democratic voting principles, and ensure that demagogues and populists don’t rear their heads in my country again for a long, long time.

I’d love to hear if you think otherwise in the comments.

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