Monday, September 26, 2005

Makings of a Man of System

The Daily Collegian 26 September (Amherst, Massachusetts, USA) carries an opinion piece by Matthew Giancola, Collegian columnist, entitled “I want a government I can trust”.
In it he accounts for his disillusion with George Bush and his drift towards supporting somebody else, or at least looking for someone else to support:

“governing should not be about beating someone else. It's about making the country better when you leave than when you started. Government should be about helping people. It should stand for equality, liberty and justice; for helping those who, due to physical or social circumstances beyond their control, cannot help themselves.”

And what was the turning point in this student’s disillusion with Republican’s? The Energy Bill:

“Government should not be used to help self-sustaining corporations as is the case in the recently adopted energy bill. In this monument too big, wasteful government, millions of dollars are given to big oil companies that make hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits; companies that aren't in dire need of receiving federal subsidies.”

He does not want government to do anything that would support the interests of ‘big oil companies’ (a fair enough populist cry), but difficult to achieve if you pass legislation on anything to do with oil because oil involves oil companies (and their employees and their families; and raises taxes to help those who “cannot help themselves”). Given that he asserts the US has a “wasteful government”, Matthew Giancola wants the same wasteful government to “help people”, particularly “those who, due to physical or social circumstances beyond their control, cannot help themselves.”

And then he brings in Adam Smith to the argument:

“To paraphrase Massachusetts Congressmen Ed Markey, "Adam Smith would be spinning in his grave." A well-worn cliché, long since drained of any literary power it had and as usual followed by an ascription to Adam Smith that has arguable relevance either to Smith or the subject:

“This money should go into helping small start-up businesses get on their feet. And since this is an energy bill, that money could go to companies developing new, clean energy alternatives.”

Think of the practical implications of this notion of organising ‘help’ from a ‘wasteful government’:

Define, identify and select:
‘small (how small?);
‘start-up businesses’ (how financially sound, how good are their business plans, what about the backgrounds of the people involved?);
‘get on their feet’; (how long do we give them, when do we pull the plug on them financially);
‘that money could go to companies developing new, clean energy alternatives’ (given the scale of the technology and finance involved and the years, perhaps, needed to prove a ‘clean energy alternative’, how much do we give to each venture and why are the ‘big oil’ companies, the one’s with the most experience and the best funded research programmes excluded from support?) and, if the above is not enough, how big an audit force do we need to monitor all this expenditure, check on its productivity and decide if it is working effectively – if efficiency is doubtful, I’ll settle, no doubt in vain, for effectiveness?

Matthew’s proposal uses a bogey target – Bush, who is having a bad time at present – and offers an alternative that appears attractive, yet when you look at it you see all the makings of a complete waste of large sums of money (taken from tax payers) to do what governments – any government, including one headed by Massachusetts Congressmen Ed Markey, or even Matthew Giancola – always do badly.

Governments cannot, and need not, devise schemes to reward entrepreneurs, except tax them lightly, maintain stable conditions and ensure that the law is enforced on their operations, as it is on individual citizens.

I am entirely unconvinced that Adam Smith would be spinning in his grave, either about America’s ‘big government’ or about ‘big oil’. He wrote eloquently, and often, about government waste, its susceptibility to lobbying by special interests, the impudence of governments thinking they can do better than individuals in the spending of their money, and the ‘men of system’ who offer plans for society that take account of everything but the fact that people are not ‘wooden chess pieces’, moved about by the hand of the players, but are humans who move about of their own volition.

And that was true in the 18th century; it is still true in the 21st (and, no doubt will be true in the 31st).

In the meantime, we should watch for the name of Matthew Giancola, because he has the makings of an electable politician (also known as a ‘man of system’) and may, some day, move closer to centre stage under the banner of ‘the man you can trust’, a marketing phrase we have heard before from every politician who seeks to manage the government’s chess board, but I sense something different in Matthew's article that suggests he means it.


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