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Behind the lines: Gotcha politics

Published October 17, 2011 8:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.

Lambson: Your fast and furious cartoon is a reminder of how "gotcha politics" is played by both sides. I understand why partisan politicians and their followers do this, but it is a poor substitute for the debate that might actually generate more light than heat. Pointing out lapses that compromise security is an important activity of the fourth estate, but placing blame on an individual as though another individual in the same situation would systematically avoid similar mistakes distracts from the broader debate over how government policy should be structured. Which brings me to my question: how did a single president transform a young conservative into a middle-aged, big government lover?

Bagley: I think you're saying it doesn't matter who manages government programs — the mere fact that it's government insures that it's going to be screwed up. This last legislative session one of our esteemed legislators said that government only knows how to destroy. I googled "Utah Legislature Government Destroys," to find the attribution. Imagine my alarm when I learned that government destroys jobs, homes, families, competition, private property, wealth, small businesses, freedom, the economy ... I had no idea that government was really Lord Voldemort in disguise! If I were part of such an evil institution I would pile up my elected-official perks on my legislator desk and put a match to the whole rotten pile while I still possessed a soul.

I'm not a lover of big government, but I am a fan of good government. And that is why George W. Bush soured me on the modern GOP.

Lambson: We are all fans of good government. The trick is to define what that means. What do you mean by it?

Bagley: From the founding of our Great Constitutional Compound Republic (I think there's a Utah law that says I have to say that), there has been tension about the role of government. The Founders were very concerned with good government. Jefferson said the best government was that which governed least, echoed, in a way, by Reagan, who said government isn't the solution, it's the problem. There were others, however, like Hamilton and Adams, who saw government in a different, more positive light. If you want to build canals to promote commerce across states, it's going to take a federal government with authority to levy taxes to do it. If you want to build an interstate highway system, well, I wouldn't trust the Alabama Legislature to put national interests first.

Lambson: And what reason does the Alabama Legislature, or anyone, have to trust the federal government to consider their interests at all? Hayek pointed out that national interest is defined very differently by different groups, and it is the politically connected groups that get their way. That's how we got the corporate welfare programs that you and I both denounce.You understood this in 1979 when you told me about Hayek's Road to Serfdom.

If Adams and Hamilton were representative of believers in big government today, I would be on board. I am not an anarchist. I agree with Jefferson on this: "A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government."

Bagley: I recommend Ron Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton" biography. Hamilton practically invented deficit spending. As for the need to regulate, let me paraphrase what a shellshocked free marketeer, Alan Greenspan, had to say to a congressional committee looking into the reasons for the 2008 financial meltdown: Gee, I guess free markets don't regulate themselves. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/23/AR2008102300193.html

Lambson: I remember Greenspan's parting remarks well. I agree there is a need for some regulation, particularly laws against fraud. We are far beyond that, however. The belief that government is likely to improve on the market by ever more intervention is a "fatal conceit" (Hayek again) with little empirical support. Enjoy your weekend, my friend.

Bagley: I was hoping this week you would choose the cartoon about Perry and the anti-Mormon conceit of his pastor friend. I'm sure we'll get another shot at Mitt's Mormon-ness and national politics soon. The "Fast and Furious" cartoon wasn't my favorite, but it certainly elicited the most comments. (big sigh). Ya know, in this day and age where facts are a few keystrokes away, it makes me fear for the future of our Republic that so many people still prefer to make up their own. If you strip away some of the name calling, there was actually a pretty good discussion last week in the "Behind the Lines" comment section over the long-term value of energy extraction to a local community like Vernal. Below is one of the better contributions.

Top Comment From Last Week's BTL

CoyoteCoup wrote: Energy industry jobs are temporary and destructive and they do not enrich local citizens in the long term. Go look at any number of bust towns and you will see this.






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