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Published on February 11th, 2013

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Chris Ladd: Complexity Demands Smaller Government

The Affordable Care Act is 2409 pages of largely technical language.  It’s the equivalent of about two and half Bibles consisting only of the ‘Jehasephat begat Flimflameram’ passages.  Most of it reads like this:

(1) GENERAL COST-SHARING LIMITATIONS.—Section 1916 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 10 1396o) is amended in each of subsections (a)(2)(B) and (b)(2)(B) by inserting ‘‘, and counseling and pharmacotherapy for cessation of tobacco use by pregnant women (as defined in section 1905(bb)) and covered outpatient drugs (as defined in subsection (k)(2) of section 1927 and including nonprescription drugs described in subsection (d)(2) of such section) …

The fact that I don’t understand the text of the law does not reflect on its merits.  However, the fact that so few of the men and women who voted on the ACA know what it says raises troubling questions about our political process.

Friedrich Hayek anticipated this problem.  He wrote The Road to Serfdom in Britain during World War II in response to growing calls for political and economic centralization.  Hayek explained that intrusive efforts to control economic activity, no matter how well-intentioned or popular, would be stymied by complexity:

It would be impossible for any mind to comprehend the infinite variety of different needs of different people which compete for the available resources and to attach a definite weight to each.

We might all agree that we want a certain highly detailed and complex government program enacted, but a truly responsive political system will be pulled in a million directions as it confronts each of the elements of its execution.  An originally clear mandate disintegrates into a muddle as the vast spectrum of conflicting interests each get their say:

The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions.  Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective “talking shops”, unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen.  The conviction grows that if effective planning is to be done, the direction must be “taken out of politics” and placed in the hands of experts, permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies

In Hayek’s view, the public desire for increasing government planning ultimately threatens democratic legitimacy.  However, Hayek was a realist when it came to regulation.  He embraced laws to manage externalities and improve living conditions.  He supported pollution controls, a minimum wage, and safe working conditions.  He acknowledged that government isn’t the only potential source of oppression and that government action is necessary to maintain a free market.

He explained that competition requires the “adequate organization of certain institutions like money, markets, and channels of information – some of which can never be adequately provided by private enterprise.”  It is only when government attempts to solve the most complex, individual human problems through expert planning that democracy sputters.

As a nation becomes more diverse, wealthy, representative, and populous, the ability of the central state to effectively regulate private activities in detail declines.  Denmark has a population slightly larger than metropolitan Houston.  Its citizens overwhelmingly share the same language, cultural heritage, and deeply intertwined social institutions.  The Danish public sector comprises almost 60% of the country’s GDP (compared to less than 20% in the US).

The Danes can, to an extent, support a big government.  Their small population is deeply interconnected through robust institutions of social capital that incorporate their will into public decision making.

America is not Denmark.  Our Federal government has to account for the needs of more than 300 million people spread across a continental land mass, representing a global microcosm of cultural, religious, economic and regional interests.  We cannot make expert government work while preserving the personal liberty we treasure.  Federal authority could operate differently and still protect the public from pollution, monopoly, and abuse by the powerful, but neither party is sincerely interested in exploring ways to do this.

Democrats long for panels of smart people to shape our world; picking our energy sources, industrial policy, educational priorities, groceries, and making all the choices that we as citizens are too stupid to make for ourselves.  The present crop of Republicans would, if turned loose, tear down nearly every barrier that protects ordinary people from abuse while building a government that would follow you all the way home, up the stairs, and into your bedroom.

There is plenty of room for government to operate between these two poles if we demand it, but how?  What would regulation look like if it were constrained by a greater sensitivity to Federal overreach?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area.  He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. (Email: chrladd AT gmail DOT com)

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