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An overlap of visions

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted August 10, 2009

The U.S regulatory revamp is going about as smoothly as I had anticipated. The news that Commerce Secretary Timothy Geithner lost his temper spread widely, and the cause was easy to finger. What's been described as a turf war is precisely those in-government vested interests I described in an article published here earlier.

Now that America has seen yet another episode of the Democrat Governance Show, the contrast between the Obama Administration and the conservative spirit illustrates a conservative vision of government. Further clarity comes with a contrast to the sometimes-overlapping libertarian vision.

It's a wide-spread misapprehension that conservative are dogmatists in government, just as common as the belief that libertarian nests are full of cranks. Neither is true: when governing, conservatives are pragmatic. Libertarians are at heart academics. There is a real overlap, but conservatives are more inclined to accept minimal government because they've anticipated, or seen, the downside of governmental overstretch. Libertarians are more the pedagogue; a libertarian talking point often seems like a canned lesson to the uninitiated.

If there's a conservative vision of government, it would have to be one filled with common-sensical and responsive government employees. It's one where bureaucrats are at heart pragmatists, and only rule-stickle to keep organized or stay in bounds. As new problems arise, procedures are bent a little if need be or followed by the book if called for. The ideal government official, in today's conservatism, is a problem-solver at heart. Nothing infuriates a conservative more than a bureaucrat who thinks that his job is an end in itself.

Consequently, the conservative critique of excessive government points to the red tape. There's a lot of it nowadays, especially from the environmental potentates. Increasingly, one hand is busy trying to tie the other hand behind the back. Electric cars are heading on a foreseeable head-on collision with the NIMBY wall. So are wind farms. The partial socialization of health care promises to save costs, but nowhere to be seen is the partial liquidation of the ambulance chasers. New oil refineries are as hard to get clearance for as new carbon-free nuclear generators. We hear so much about unregulated derivatives, and so little about a certain Ponzi scheme right in the heart of Regulated County. The liberal solution to all of this – more regulations or just shush up about it – suggests Johnny One-Note has a lot of descendants. No wonder more and more pragmatists are drifting over to the conservative movement.

Libertarian goals often overlap with conservative ones, but their vision is rather different. The best way to capture it would be to follow around a British cabinet minister from the old eighteenth century days.

He shows up a work a little late and a little peaked; his scribe is already there. He busies himself with any requests, and then jets off in the middle of the day to play cards. He doing so means that half of the entire ministry is gone for the day. This fellow's routine is not determined by his desire to avoid work, but by the fact that hardly anyone contacts him for help. There are many days when the number of requests he had to deal with is zero.

In American terms, the libertarian vision is encapsulated by a politician who doesn't receive a single request letter in a day. No favors asked, no grants sought, no beggaring, hardly any correspondence at all. An empty mailbag, because no-one wants to ask any favors from the government. Said politician may be lazy or not, but no-one cares. Legislative sessions are short because there's little to do. Most people prefer it that way.

Anyone who's poked the nose around D.C. knows that this libertarian pastorality is light-years away from standard operating procedure. There's no busier mail deliverer than the one on Capitol Hill. Politicians receive so many requests, it's not surprising that they only have a vague idea of what "the people" want. They have to rely on polls, pols and executive summaries because that's all they have time for. Liberals who like to dream of Congress as an assembly line forget that those 'assembly-line workers' can't have time to read the bills that they're supposed to be stamping and folding. The next one's coming down the line, so vote once and move on.

One major reason why politicians all seem to be soulless Washington insiders is time pressure. The soulless assembly line has to keep on rollin'.

In a way, it's not surprising that libertarianism has become so widespread. It's not just the theory that speaks to the times, it's also the vision. There's a real overlap with the conservative vision, in large part because there's nothing more dysfunctional than the terribly overworked. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan blogs these days about low P/E stocks.


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