Fred LaSor: Is bigger government better?
January 11, 2018
It's a given in large organizations that more is better: more personnel, a larger budget, and an enhanced mission are generally accepted as signs the organization is successful and thriving. Government is the outstanding example of this mentality, as is evident if you compare any federal telephone book today with what it looked like a decade or more ago.
The staffing of the executive branch of our government has grown inexorably, and not only has staffing increased on a constant basis from Eisenhower to Obama, the number and variety of offices has also increased, so that under the previous administration we not only had more cabinet offices with more employees, but we duplicated many functions by having so-called czars attached to the White House who were tasked with similar responsibilities, like an Energy Czar (Carol Browner) in addition to a Secretary of Energy (Steven Chu).
The Trump White House has reversed this practice, not only refusing to name a wide array of czars, but downsizing agencies and working to limit the reach of government. While the effort runs counter to traditional bureaucratic practice, it has a liberating effect on business and others who see fewer obstacles to their activities. The people most damaged are the government employees whose jobs disappear and the unions which represent them, and they're likening current developments to Armageddon.
The long reach of government is frequently sold as "protecting the consumer," as if only a government bureaucrat knows what's good for citizens. Critics call this "nannyism." The outstanding example was New York Mayor Bloomberg's campaign to limit the size of sodas in an attempt to address health issues associated with obesity: the goal is laudable, but the means to achieve it is questionable. Seattle is fighting the battle against sugary drinks right now, as Guy Farmer mentioned in a recent column. Seattle tries to hide its nannyism by claiming the sugar tax is paid by the wholesaler, not the consumer. Anyone stupid enough to believe that should not be allowed to vote. Or even buy soda!
The Trump White House set a goal early on to reduce this kind of interference in citizens' daily life. Trump himself has seen the stifling effects of government involvement in construction and business licensing, and believed it does more harm than good. All of which is a shame, as government has a legitimate role to play in protecting citizens from predatory activities and unsafe practices.
But this same justification is trotted out in defense of licensing requirements for jobs as unthreatening as hair weavers, who in some jurisdictions have to undergo 2,000 hours of training before taking a licensing exam. That sounds more like restraint of trade than protecting consumers. And it clearly opens government to charges of picking winners and losers in commerce and industry.
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The current administration has clearly succeeded in reassuring American business it intends, for at least the next three years, to reduce federal barriers to commerce. Proof of their success on that front is a drop in unemployment numbers, an increase in the number of people in the workforce, growing salaries, and other positive economic indicators.
Unemployment figures alone are an insufficient basis to draw firm conclusions of progress on the economic front, since workers who run out of benefits are no longer counted as "unemployed." But a broad range of positive economic indicators reflects a higher confidence level in American business leaders that the government is on the right track. It's a welcome change from what we experienced in the previous eight years, and we should watch closely to observe the failure or success of reduced government.
Fred LaSor follows economic developments from retirement in the Carson Valley.