A Common Conservative Fallacy (Revised 7/24/10; revised again 4/9/12))

I believe folly serves liberals better than it serves conservatives. Our way is the rational way while liberals tend to rely on their gut-feelings and on their sensitive hearts which make them comparatively indifferent to hard facts. That’s why they voted for  Pres. Obama. That’s why many of them still can’t face emotionally the possibility of buyer’s remorse.

It’s the task of every conservative to correct important errors that have found their way into fellow conservatives’ mind. Here is one I hear several times a week, especially from Rush Limbaugh (whom I otherwise like and admire). What’s below is a paraphrase, a distillation of many different but similar statements, from Limbaugh and from others I listen to and read:

Government does not create jobs.” and, “Government does not create wealth (it just seizes the wealth created by business and transfers it to others.)” Both statements are important and both statements are just false. It’s not difficult to show why.

First, some government actions make jobs possible that would not exist, absent those actions. Bear with me.

Suppose I have a large field of good bottom land. From this land I can easily grow a crop of corn sufficient to feed my family, and our poultry, and our pig, Gaspard. I grow a little more to make pretty good whiskey. I have no reason to grow more corn than this. I forgot to tell you: This is 1820 in eastern Ohio. Now, the government uses taxes (money taken from me and from others under threat of violence, to be sure) to dig and build  a canal that links me and others to the growing urban centers of New York and Pennsylvania. I decide to plant more corn, for sale back East. This growth in my total production works so well that I expand again. Soon, I have to hire a field hand to help me out, After a while, I have two employees.

In the  historically realistic situation I describe, would it not be absurd to declare that the government gets no credit, zero credit for the two new jobs?

Second, it should be obvious that government provides many services such as mail delivery. Also, some of the services private companies supply in this country are supplied elsewhere by a branch of government. They are comparable. Emergency services, ambulance service, is a case in point. Most ambulances are privately owned and operated in the US while most ambulances are government-owned and operated in France. If you have a serious car accident in the US, you or someone calls a certain number and an ambulance arrives to administer first aid and to carry you to a hospital if needed. Exactly the same thing happens in France under similar circumstances.

In both countries, the value of the  service so rendered is entered into the national accounting and it appears in the American Gross Domestic Product for the year (GDP) and in the French GDP, respectively. The GDP thus increases by something like $500. GDP is important because it’s the most common measure of the value of our collective production. When the GDP is up by 3,5 % for a year, it makes every American who knows it happy. When the GDP shrinks by 1%, we all worry and we all feel poorer. If it shrinks at all for two consecutive quarters, you have the conventional definition of a recession and all hell breaks lose, including a rise in unemployment.

Exactly the same is true in France. The government-provided French ambulance service has exactly the same effect on the French GDP.

Now think of this: Is there anyone who believes that the equivalent service supplied in France by a government agency does not have more or less the same value as the American service provided by a private company? Would anyone argue that the ambulance service supplied in France, in most ways identical to the service in America, should not be counted in the French GDP? Clearly, both propositions are absurd.

Same thing for job creation. When the French government agency in charge of ambulances hires an additional ambulance driver, it creates a new job, same as when an American company hires an ambulance driver.

By the way, don’t think my story trivial. “Services” is a poorly defined category. It’s even sometimes too heterogeneous to be useful (not “erogenous,” please pay attention). It includes such things as waitressing, fortune-telling, university teaching, and doing whatever Social Security employees do. Yet it’s good enough for gross purposes. Depending on what you include, last year, “services” accounted for something between 45% and 70% of US GDP. So, if you think services, such as ambulance service, should not be counted, you should know that it means that we are earning collectively about half to three quarters less than we think we do. If memory serves, that means that our standard of living today is about the same as it was in 1950 or even in 1930.

Does this all imply that we should rejoice every time the government expands? The answer is “no,” for three reasons. These three reasons correspond to three questions that conservatives should ask over and over again:

1 Is this service a real service to regular people or is it created only, or largely, to serve the needs of those who provide it, or for frivolous reasons? Some government services fall into this area, not many, I think. Look in the direction of government control, inspection, verification functions. Don’t forget your local government.

Public education looks more and more like a service provided largely or even primarily to give careers to teachers and administrators protected by powerful unions. It does not mean that the real service “education” does not take place, just that it’s often done badly by people who are not the best they could be to provide that particular service

2   Is this particular service better provided by government or by the private sector? Is it so even while the provision of the service requires collecting taxes and then paying out the proceeds to the actual civil servants through a government bureaucracy? That’s a very indirect way to go about. That’s probably enough to make it more expensive than it would otherwise be. That’s true even if every government employee inv0lved is a model of efficiency

The US Post Office remains the best example of a  situation where one would say  the private sector can do it better

Only conservatives dare pose this question with respect to services one level of government or other has been supplying for a long time or forever. The Post Office is inefficient; if it were abolished, the paper mail would be delivered, faster or cheaper, or both. Some paper mail would not be delivered anymore. Many more of us would count it a blessing than the reverse. While there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that children should be educated at collective expense, there is growing certitude that governments should not be in the business of education. In many parts of the country, the public schools are both expensive and bad. Last time I looked, Washington DC was spending over $20,000 per pupil per year. Give me half that amount and half the students or better will come out knowing how to read, I say. (It’s not the case now.)

3   This is the most serious question and the most difficult to answer concretely: Does the fact that this service is provided by government (any level) have any negative effect on our liberties? This is a separate question altogether. It may be that the government’s supply of a particular service is both inefficient and dangerous to freedom. It may be however that government supply is the most efficient solution possible and yet, I don’t want it because it threatens my freedom. As a conservative, I believe that my money is my money. I am free to use it to buy inefficiently, in order to preserve liberty, for example. I am not intellectually obligated to be “pragmatic” and short sighted.

To take an example at random, if someone showed me, demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, that Obamacare would reduce the cost of health care without impairing its quality, if that happened, I would still be against it because of the answer I would give to the third and last question above.

I don’t want a any government bureaucracy to make decisions that are ultimately decisions of life and death on my behalf. The possibility of blackmail is too real. Even thinking about it is likely to make some people more docile than they otherwise would be.

The rule of thumb is this: Every expansion of government reduces individual freedom. That’s true even if this expansion creates and efficient and effective government agency, say, a real good Post Office we don’t even know how to dream of.

This is not  something I worry much about, in the case of Obamacare obviously. It would be inefficient, ineffective and dangerous to individual liberty all at once.

Conservatives don’t do enough to proclaim that their opposition to big government has an ethical basis, that it’s a moral position independent of the quality of big government. This silence makes if easy for liberals to caricature conservatives as just selfish grouches who don’t want to pay taxes.

Most of the time, I don’t want to pay taxes because I don’t want to be forced. I would gladly give away twice the amount of my taxes if there were a way to do it voluntarily instead of paying taxes.

I am so opposed to this kind of force that I think even the undeserving and obscenely rich should not be despoiled by the government. It’s an ethical position, not a pragmatic one. And, it sure cannot be called “selfish.” (WTF!)

About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
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3 Responses to A Common Conservative Fallacy (Revised 7/24/10; revised again 4/9/12))

  1. clambo slice says:

    Limbaugh would more correctly state that the government cannot create non-government jobs, or conversely, state that the government can only create government jobs. Certainly except for NASA, Defense and National Security, most government services are performed better in the private sector, e.g. UPS/Fedex v. USPS.

  2. Thomas H. says:

    Under one particular definition – “a position in, a piece of, or paid employment in the free enterprise system,” the government does not really “create” jobs with its stimulus packages and so forth. The government has programs and projects where jobs sit and are a part of the program, with a business or other sign on them, for example, and are filled according to the requirements of the business cycle or someone’s bright – line measure of dangerous unemployment… and yes, a marxist has seen me, unfortunately. AND there is some proof around, probably even in the U.S. Dept. of Labor, that stimulus packages are really window dressing and do other things besides generate business and revenues – so, marxists, go and find the statistics.

    With that, there are activities which when they turn highly paternalistic do some things rather well, like fulfill quotas and so forth, and allow people to believe they are working; but that do impose upon our freedoms even to be so preoccupying as to affect thought processes and individual psyches. Some of the latter find themselves in government programs, and among them might be a kind of health care system the current administration in D.C. is turning over and over in its collective mind. The derivative term “Obamacare,” or some name it “socialized” medicine has been a prospective reform since the time of Watergate, or even before then during the legislative debate for Medicare. For reasons posted already, it is important, for instance, that we not have hospitals and clinics run like the post office, nor, i.e., like the BLS. You play me like a fiddle.

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