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Montana Public Radio Commentary: The Courtier Society

By: Carl Graham, CEO, Montana Policy Institute

Thanksgiving always reminds me of an old Twilight Zone episode where the aliens show up in sparkly robes with gleaming big eyes and smiles all around. Their elongated fingers carry a book called “To Serve Man,” which everyone naturally assumes is a primer for saving us silly humans from our own ignorance and evil natures. This is during the Cold War, remember, when we all assumed we were going to blow each other to smithereens at any moment.

Naturally the best and the brightest humans start lining up for a trip to the home planet where further enlightenment undoubtedly awaits and a select few will be chosen as mankind’s benevolent overlords. It’s for our own good, of course.

Unfortunately, “To Serve Man” turns out to be a cookbook and the best and brightest are on the menu instead of the guest list.

Maybe it’s just the Thanksgiving tryptophan talking, but I think that’s where this country is headed as people and businesses line up for special treatment from an increasingly centralized and powerful government. At some point they’re going to find out that they’re dinners instead of diners.

We’re already seeing the increased influence exerted by just a few large special interests with access to political power resulting in more restrictions, regulations, and costs that disproportionately fall on small businesses and families, whose voices and opportunities to pursue happiness have grown relatively weaker in the process.

I could give you any number of examples, but let’s just use one that everybody has seen in the papers. The Dodd/Frank banking reform law was passed in the wake of a financial crisis that resulted in taxpayers bailing out big banks to the tune of billions of dollars and looking for someone to blame. Although many of its rules are still being written, we already know that the law includes massive increases in compliance, insurance and capital costs for banks, along with giving politically favored large institutions a de facto “too big to fail” designation.

It’s a law that was written for big bankers by big bankers. They can absorb the increased compliance costs while small banks with much lower margins can’t. They can meet the capital and insurance requirements that stifle small banks’ ability to make local loans to farmers and homebuyers. And of course with an implicit government guarantee, big banks enjoy much lower borrowing costs than small banks giving them even more of a competitive advantage.

The result is that we will soon see our community banks – those that survive anyway – become nothing more than storefronts and loan processors for the “too big to fail” banks that the government has chosen to guarantee. Decisions will be made based on checklists developed in New York and Washington D.C. rather than on personal relationships and local knowledge. Loan proceeds will be shipped out of the state and the big banks will increasingly feed the revolving door of the regulated and regulators until only those that can maintain their political access survive. Consumers will have fewer choices with higher costs, and will have to tailor their lives to meet one size fits all requirements if they want mortgages or small business loans.

But that’s not my point.

My point is that by massively centralizing and expanding government power we’re creating a courtier society, one where access to the King’s court is more important to success than merit or effort or risk taking. Now of course I’m not saying we’re creating a monarchy, but the effect is the same when power, influence and success come from proximity to the levers of power rather than from working hard and taking risks. The politically connected will always have access to power, and so the greater that power the more they will succeed at everyone else’s expense.

The result of this centralization and expansion of power is the systematic elimination of small business in this country. The barriers to entry are becoming so high and the cost of complying with regulation so onerous that would-be entrepreneurs are increasingly unable to make any return on their investments or even go about their daily business without risking fines, penalties, or jail.

Many existing businesses will simply close up shop as regulations and reporting requirements become too expensive or difficult to comply with. Job growth will dry up – especially at the low end of the income scale – as the costs of hiring new employees increase and government becomes a competitor for labor with new and expanded entitlement programs. New entrepreneurs will increasingly look at the barriers to entering the marketplace and the myriad of obstacles erected in their path and just go do something else. The risks and rewards of starting a new business will just not be worth it, especially if their success will be demonized in the increasingly popular political tactic of class warfare.

In a courtier society power is centralized and only that power decides who succeeds and who fails. Decisions are made based on proximity to the throne rather than merit, effort, or even the law. That is the direction we are headed as government becomes increasingly centralized, large, powerful and arbitrary.

The end of this path lies in a business/government partnership where large corporations operate under the umbrella and the thumb of government, and people trade their freedom for a monthly check. There’s a name for that, but I don’t want to be incendiary on this special holiday. Just take a look at Italy in the 1920s for a good example.

And have a Happy Thanksgiving while we still have much to be thankful for.

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For Immediate Release
930 Words

Carl Graham is CEO of the Montana Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy research and education center based in Bozeman.
He can be reached at:
67 W. Kagy Blvd., Ste. B
Bozeman, MT 59715
(406) 219-0508
cgraham@montanapolicy.org

Montana Public Radio Commentary: Philosophies on Philosophies

Philosophies on Philosophies

By: Carl Graham, CEO, Montana Policy Institute

With stimulus packages apparently designed to just stimulate government growth, “Quantitative Easing” that’s only inflating the next bubble, and institutionalized denigration of those holding differing opinions passing for political discourse, maybe it’s time to say a few words about central planning.

Huh? What the heck does central planning have to do with any of that stuff?

Well, it’s a good representation of those differing opinions that many of us have. It exemplifies the difference in philosophy between those who think government is the only thing we all belong to, and those of us who think government actually is the only thing that belongs to all of us.

Let’s face it.  Some people want to be planned for.  They like having membership in a club that can make the tough calls, do the intellectual heavy lifting, and take the heat for our collective misdeeds.  They’re willing to give up some latitude in their lives to not have to make those hard decisions, or maybe they think there are enough others out there who are incapable of making good decisions that somebody should help narrow their options.  And of course there’s no shortage of people who think they have all the answers and gee wouldn’t we all be better off if they could just impose their ideas on the rest of us in the form of central planning. It’d be so much more efficient and, even if a few eggs get broken it’ll still be a better omelet.

But history is littered with failed attempts by states (or more accurately elites) to centrally plan all or significant portions of economies.  From the French Revolution to socialism to communism, to even Plato’s philosopher king, elites have tried to tie all the pieces of society together in a way that provided for everyone by dictating the types and amounts of things (materials, ideas, labor, etc.) to keep the machine running.  All failed spectacularly.  Well, Plato’s wasn’t really tried but come on; can you really see your old philosophy professor with the pony tail and bong blisters in charge?

These attempts were all cloaked in good intentions but failed out of a combination of hubris and indifference: someone assumed they could know the unknowable about what people wanted and needed, and what it would take to provide all of those things in the right quantities and at the right places and times.  And because enough people didn’t demand the right to make their own decisions the ruling elites were able to use powerful and centralized governments to impose their “solutions.”

Let’s see: bank lending requirements, pay caps, government-run healthcare, mass subsidies, auto bailouts…the list is growing of things that someone somewhere thinks they know more about than millions of free people making free decisions about how best to allocate their resources to pursue their own happiness. As more and more decisions and resources are centralized in Washington, the gap between haves and have-nots is being replaced by a growing gulf between those who get to make decisions about we’ll live our lives, and those of us who have live with those decisions.

And that is why, I think, we’re seeing denigration passing for opinion and demonization passing for discourse. The stakes have never been higher, and there are two broad camps out there with fundamentally different visions of what this country should look like– both with strong historical philosophical roots and legitimacy. But both can’t be right, at least not at one time in one place.

I’m getting quite tired, for example, of hearing that those on the Left are stupid, uninformed, or evil.  Some certainly are some or all of those things, as are some on the Right. But just like ignorance, racism and extremism don’t define the vast majority of those on the Right; stupidity and malevolence don’t define the activating forces behind those on the Left.

Ignoring the vast malleable center for the moment – which we generally do anyway except at election time – most people fall into one of two camps, both of which have long philosophical pedigrees and solid ideological underpinnings.

Folks like me who believe that freedom and happiness flow from natural rights and having choices in our lives too often fall into the trap of casually dismissing as useful idiots or miscreants those who believe that rights are granted by governments which are in turn best led by intellectual elites attuned to the needs of the times.

It’s not necessarily gullible or malevolent to believe that some set of experts are better at adapting to the times than individuals and so they should be in charge for the betterment of us all.  It sounds nuttier than a Planters Peanut factory to me, but it’s not an illegitimate view and it should be argued against, not belittled.

Likewise, many on the Left generally dismisses the new grassroots conservative movement as not worthy of their derision and so fall back on manufactured stereotypes of racists and bumpkins to explain any popularity and successes these groups attain.

What many on the Left don’t understand is that there are sound ideological and philosophical underpinnings to conservative values as well. Founding principles and religious values are legitimate in the mainstream, and so the people who hold them must be tarred with illegitimate caricatures of bigotry or ignorance to marginalize them. That is, or should be, insulting to honest people on both sides of the argument.

The thing is, if we don’t understand our opponents’ philosophies and what goes into their assumptions how can we tailor our arguments to oppose them and expose their fallacies?  And if we take the intellectually lazy position of ascribing ill intent or ignorance rather than understanding their arguments then we miss an enormous opportunity to debate issues on the strengths of our own arguments.  We’re seeing too much of that now, where informed and interested people are calling each other playground names instead of trying to persuade each other and educate those around them.

We would do our political system a favor, and maybe we could get back to watching boring beer commercials for a while if we spent a little more time listening and a little less time calling each other names.

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