On the Proper Role of Government
When government is defined too expansively, the public good falls victim to private gain and democracy itself is corrupted.
by Jerome F. Winzig
The preamble to the constitution of the United States reads: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure Domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
The constitution of the state of Minnesota begins by defining the object of government in these words: "Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent, together with the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good."
It seems, however, that we often stray from such definitions of the role of government. Articles in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune describe proposals that assume a much different role for government. The Minneapolis City Council is deliberating a proposal for the city to build an underground parking garage for the Walker Art Center. The U.S. Congress is considering a law that would establish a national dairy compact that would raise the average price of a gallon of milk by 26 cents. The plan would also provide northeast dairy farmers with $500 million in transition payments to compensate them for their lapsed dairy compact.
The editorial page asks the city council to approve an additional $6 million levy to replace lost tax increment financing revenues (which the state legislature restricted because it was so abused). The sports pages report that the New York Yankees are on the verge of offering Jason Giambi a seven-year package worth about $120 million. At the same time, major league baseball wants Minnesota to build the local Minnesota Twins a new taxpayer-funded stadium that provides the team with more revenue. (Major league football wants a separate new taxpayer-funded stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.)
There are other local demands on government as well. The city of Richfield used tax increment financing and eminent domain to condemn several square blocks of homes and businesses so that Best Buy could build a large new headquarters. During the last session of the legislature, the Tyrone Guthrie Theater obtained public subsidies to build a new theater complex. Target recently opened a new downtown store that was built with the help of tens of millions of dollars in public money.
These proposals and others like them (unfortunately there are many) do not "promote the general welfare." Instead, they promote the welfare of selected private interests and special interests. These proposals are not for the "benefit and protection of the people." Rather, they seek to bend government to serve certain people only and to use "the people's" money for private purposes.
Of course, those who advocate such proposals do not see it that way. They define government in expansive terms and believe it is the government's role to bail out private interests. Are foreign businesses selling at prices lower than ours? Slap a tariff on them; if that doesn't work, impose import quotas. Is a steel plant going to close because it's losing millions of dollars? Pass a law forcing it to stay open anyhow and then force the company to accept a government loan.
Ironically, many of those who advocate an expansive government are the same people who decry the presence of lobbyists in state and federal government and who insist we need campaign finance reform. They ignore the fact that campaign contributions are large and lobbyists are numerous because these same governments have the power to dole out benefits for special interests and also have the power to do harm to those who do not send lobbyists to advocate for their interests.
However, there is a terrible human cost for this approach to government. It penalizes the poorest Americans by sucking investments out of the private sector that could otherwise go for new technology and new jobs. It penalizes the poor in developing countries by denying them equal access to American markets. Most importantly, it eats away at the very foundation of democracy by encouraging everyone to play the special interest game, seeking what the government can do for them. Ultimately, this game will leave us all losers; when we all get our share of the public's money, there will be nothing left.