A Review of James L. Payne, The Big Government We Love to Hate: Exploring the Roots of Political Malaise, Sandpoint, Idaho: Lytton Publishing, 2021
Jim Payne is a Ph.D. political scientist who has taught at Yale, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins and Texas A&M University. I met him when we were both active faculty members at A&M, and I have even visited him at his Sandpoint home near the Canadian border during a summer motorcycle trip through the Rocky Mountains. He recently asked me if I would review his latest book (of 21!) and I responded, “Sure, be delighted.” He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, likely the smartest, and that’s saying a lot, so why not?
The text is only 161 pages of medium-sized print of clear-as-a-bell prose, making for pretty easy reading given all the penetrating insights and info on offer along the way. This is followed by 45 pages of notes and references which I suggest you read since so many are substantive additions to the text. And yes, a 10-page index is included.
Chapter 1 is a 12-page Overview that gives the plot away. Our political malaise in a nutshell? “…the public has lost confidence in big government, but wants more of it” (p. 3). What!? This is absurd, an obvious contradiction but apparently a true state of affairs. The explanation for it, says Payne, is “the existence of a deep, non-rational loyalty…a widely shared, unquestioned conviction that emerges over many centuries…”
Payne uses the word “faith” on p. 1 and continues it on countless pages thereafter, often accompanied by adjectives like “blind,” “non-scientific,” “non-rational,” “reflexive,” “unexamined,” “a blind impulse,” “unshakeable,” and “stronger than iron.” And he is entirely right. It’s the essential ingredient that makes government grow. In spite of all the disappointment and criticism, “government gets bigger, generation after generation.” I ask, is there any area of human life yet untouched by government intervention? I think not. As an Argentinian colleague of mine used to put it, “Democrats say ‘get the government out of the bedroom,’ while Republicans say ‘get the government out of business.’ They’re both right!”
I could not help but think of philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, the arch enemy of “faith” as an alleged means to knowledge. As her designated intellectual heir, philosopher Leonard Peikoff wrote, “‘Faith’ designates blind acceptance of a certain ideational content, acceptance induced by feeling in the the absence of evidence or proof.” (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 158, also see Epistemology, pp. 148-9). And what about contradiction? Rand: “A contradiction cannot exist…To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality…[A rational man] knows that the contradictory is the impossible, that a contradiction cannot be achieved in reality and that the attempt to achieve it can lead only to disaster and destruction” (pp. 106-7). Yup.
Yet when it comes to government that’s where most of America lives, and most of the world along with it: evicted from the realm of reality. As Aristotle–“the philosopher”–put it, the Law of Non-Contradiction “is the most certain of all…that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect” (p. 107). No square circles folks. No “John will be a little late for the party. He died last week.”
Payne gets more specific about the underlying, ignorant presumption about government: “Government is society’s natural and proper problem-solving agency.” How ridiculous is that? Well, that’s just me, a wizened, libertarian economist, not “generations of kings, presidents, activists, and publics,” who “simply assumed that it is.” The rest of the book is devoted to “a close look into what government is, and how it operates.” No surprise, it’s not a pretty picture. As Payne says in his more restrained prose, “This exploration reveals that this institution has many shortcomings as a problem-solving agency, and therefore is an unsuitable manager in most of the areas we have entrusted to it.”
In chapter 2 Payne cites left-leaning Washington Post writers who wring their hands over documented failures in government programs like a troubled hospital in Southeast Washington that “should have taught the city to stay out of the hospital business. Yet a few lines later the editorial declared that ‘There is no question…of the need for the city to play a role in helping to improve the quality of care.'” Payne also cites Ruth Marcus, E.J. Dionne (Why Americans Hate Politics), and Philip Howard (The Death of Common Sense). Payne labels their contradictory love-hate message about Government as “failurism.” Others like Jonathan Rauch can’t ‘even look up at the great dome [of the U.S. Capitol] without catching my breath a little in awe.” Each time John DiIulio sees the Capitol dome he gets “a little lump in my throat” and calls the American government “majestic and miraculous.” A secular religion in other words.
George Washington was not only the father of the new nation but of the grandiose buildings for a new government too. Along with a palace-like edifice for him–the White House–he urged an awe-inspiring marble cathedral for a capitol which “ought to be upon a scale far superior to anything in this Country” (p. 32). Might that have something to do with the hysterical reaction to the January 6 riot in the U.S. capitol? Fractional reserve banks also put up impressive buildings to inspire trust among depositors while churches build awesome cathedrals to inspire believers, wherewithal permitting, the same idea the father of our country had. In Washington’s 8th Annual Message in 1796, Payne further points out that he urged Congress to plunge into “all kinds of social and economic activities.”
Another example of misplaced worship that irks me is Richard Clarke (Your Government Failed You) who claims “government had ended the Great Depression” and if not “millions of people would have suffered for decades.” FDR saved the country? Nonsense, his ham-fisted interventions, preceded by similar mistakes by progressive Republican President Herbert Hoover, converted a relatively ordinary correction/recession into the longest depression in U.S. history. One only need compare it to the short-lived last “free market recession” of 1920-21. If allowed, free-market pricing adjusts rather rapidly to (approximately) clear markets once again and thereby restore full employment production.
The resemblance between altar and throne, church and state, is hard to avoid in this book. For an extreme example, Payne cites failurist Lawrence Lessig in Republic, Lost: “…however much we condemn what government has become, we forget it is the heir to something we still believe divine.” Payne responds: “The word ‘divine’ does not belong in political science.” Amen, brother!
But is failurism mainstream? Yes it is despite survey data showing the contrary: the proportion of the public trusting government has declined from 75% to about 20% in recent decades (p. 25). “Most people say they are against big government. Yet the reality of big government…is widely embraced.” As an example Payne cites 71% favor raising “the” minimum wage (dictated by force of course) so the public trusts government “to wisely and correctly dictate wages in millions of employment situations they themselves know nothing about.” The young and old get priced out of jobs, and their loss of attendant income and skill acquisition, as well as small businesses priced out of business, thereby boosting poverty and shrinking GDP are mostly invisible and of no concern.
To answer chapter 4’s question, “Is Government Likely to Be a Good Problem-solving Agency?,” Payne considers the origins of government. Anthropologist Lawrence Keeley drew many studies of violence together and found that the war death rate among tribal societies was 20 times as high as in the wars of the 20th century. Government, Payne asserts, is an “evolved tribal institution,” “…projecting the violence of the community against neighboring tribes, and also against deviants within the tribe. In theory, it might have deployed its instruments of violence only in a defensive capacity…this defensive ideal has never been approached, or even been seriously considered.” True, more or less.
But the next step was initially a little troublesome. Granted, some human beings initiate violence but does it follow that “Therefore, an agency that deploys physical force is obviously needed to resist them. Indeed, a force-based entity, something resembling government, is probably inevitable in any human community”(p. 49). An agency? Only one entity? It turns out I overreacted to these two sentences because they seem to assume that a single organization, a compulsory monopoly on legal force within a territorial domain, is necessary. No competing suppliers of security services allowed? Yet vendors–plural–would be far more efficient on the free market than the state could ever be.
“Thus, it appears that, given the current human tendency toward aggression, government is an inevitable and unavoidable phenomenon.” But that’s hardly the only way to handle crime. If the state is “the great legalized and socially legitimated channel for all manner of antisocial crime — lying, theft, oppression, mass murder — on a massive scale,” according to Rothbard, I find it hard to defend monopoly government as the sole method to protect individual rights. But I overreacted in my interpretation about monopoly upon my first read. We find on p. 85, for instance, Professor Payne states: “A little imagination quickly reveals, of course, that there is no service or activity that only government can provide.” Now I buy that, there is no service or activity that non-governmental organizations (NGO) as well as for-profit-and-loss companies cannot supply, including security services. I would love to see Dr. Payne directly engage Murray Rothbard’s radical analysis of the case for anarcho capitalist/voluntarist societies. “What anarchism proposes to do, then, is to abolish the state, that is, to abolish the regularized institution of aggressive coercion.”
After the summer of 2020, does anyone actually believe that the state is a reliable provider of defensive services? The looters, arsonists, assaulters and murderers had repeated field days, and leftist officials in democrat-ruled cities identified with the aggressors, basically providing zero protection to the “victim stock.” At least summer 2020 had enormous educative value, as it were. And now we can observe same with the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha WI. I contend that the state is a massive fraud on virtually every front, and gradually more people are waking up to that fact, imo.
Back to Murray Rothbard for a little more. He discusses ostracism as an enforcement tactic and voluntary arbitration as a thriving business: “a court system which has a monopoly guaranteed by the force of statutory law will not give as good quality service as will free-market arbitration agencies which must compete for their customers…” Duh. The exact structure of an anarchist society cannot be predicted in detail since the success and failure of entrepreneurs serving clients will determine that. For example, there may be some vertical integration of police, insurance companies and courts. “There is a natural market connection between insurance companies and defense service, since they need pay out less benefits in proportion as they are able to keep down the rate of crime.” So would utopia exist? No, “but the important point is that market forces exist to place severe checks on such [adverse] possibilities, especially in contrast to a society where a state exists. For, in the first place, judges, like arbitrators, will prosper on the market in proportion to their reputation for efficiency and impartiality. Secondly, on the free market important checks and balances exist against venal courts or criminal police forces. Namely, that there are competing courts and police agencies to whom victims may turn for redress.” “In order to be considered legitimate, any court would have to follow the basic libertarian law code of the inviolate right of person and property.” For more read Rothbard, and see ch. 7 below for more by Payne on a stateless society.
Ch. 4 explores 19 (!) reasons why government is unlikely to be a good problem-solving agency. A few of my favorites: use of force is unethical, it can provoke resistance, resentment, evasion and non-compliance, it blocks local and specialized knowledge, undermines creativity, idealism and enthusiasm, spawns corruption and waste, and creates “forever” bureaucracies. So how to improve the world? We have the government alternative or the voluntary approach. Payne briefly points to drinking alcoholic beverages, a practice many see as harmful. And how did prohibition work out? Another failed “social uplift” experiment. And the “War on Drugs? Drugs won, hands down. Coercion has not worked. Better to seek a cultural shift via education, support groups, sponsor research on the effects of mind-altering drugs, etc. Rely on peaceful, voluntary processes of persuasion.
Ch. 5 knocks down the fallacy “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” [Latin: “after this, therefore because of this”] often used to credit government for independent, trending successes due to other causes (“the rooster’s crowing causes the sun to rise”). Case in point: the decline in child labor as capitalism gradually diminished grinding poverty. Or, some analysts absurdly point to LBJ’s “War on Poverty” as a big success but there has been little or no improvement in statistical poverty since the mid-1960s. Part of the problem is that too many judge programs by intentions, not results.
Dr. Peter H. Rossi (1921-2006) was a sociologist who delved into many topics like homelessness, food programs and job training programs to scientifically evaluate results and “he literally wrote the book on the topic, Evaluation: A Systematic Approach, which went through seven editions.” The key was to compare the behavior of, say, criminal offenders who went through a “rehabilitation” program with a group of offenders having no contact with the program. The results? “Quite disappointing.” “Study after study showed that the programs intended to improve lives actually made no difference.” Rossi coined “The Iron Law of Evaluation” which states “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large-scale social program is zero.”
So did Rossi become a “forthright libertarian, urging that government programs of all sorts be scaled back”? NO. He backtracked immediately, crowing about “quite spectacular successes: the American old age pension system plus Medicare.” Yet he could point to no scientific evaluation to support this claim. And American workers pay enormous, compulsory slices of their wages into those programs, depressing their standard of living, plus workers do not save as much for retirement (Feldstein 1974), thereby costing the economy new investment dollars to raise productivity, and thereby raise subsequent wages, and thereby general prosperity. Government tends to be shallow and myopic, ignoring the long run consequences of its actions (“after us, the deluge”).
Ch. 6 deals with the argument “What Else Is There?” Duh, voluntary methods. Payne calls this skepticism the “null alternative” hypothesis. Payne documents a number of cases of ignorance of alternatives to government intervention but here’s my independent favorite: In 2011 I interviewed writer and talk show host Alan Stang, now deceased, who described how President Harry S. Truman railed against the “Do Nothing 80th [Republican] Congress.” Stang countered that what we need is “Do Nothing Presidents” and “Do Something People.” Alan Stang interview at 19:00 minutes.
Ch. 7 takes up the statist charge that without government “There’d Be Chaos!” This is the “most self-evident, conclusive point that the defender of big government makes.” So we are back to the anarcho-capitalist/voluntarist society question. First Payne points out that the human tendency toward violent aggression has not been constant, instead, it is in decline. And in a society like Syria the contention that without government “there would be chaos is ironic nonsense. In a high-violence culture, government, and the struggle over control of government, is the source of the violence and destruction we call chaos.” So, in part, the contention is just another example of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. The main explanation for the long-run decline in violence…is not the existence of government, but a low-violence culture [a culture, also according to Rothbard, that would be encouraged by the lack of a coercive monopoly]. In a high-violence culture, governments resort to excessive and destructive violence, and so do citizens, and everyone suffers from the resulting chaos.”
Further, Payne points out that while we might accept the point that government units can be useful for dealing with crime and violence, even if the official government units dealing with domestic and foreign violent threats were abolished, people would move to create similar agencies to attempt to handle these problems…these associations might rely on voluntary donations, or they might charge subscribers for protective services—just as security companies do.
Returning to his main theme, Payne states, “Thus, we can say that organizations [plural!] that react to the use of force are needed in society. But this elementary observation does not imply that these units should be involved in other activities…[falsely elevated] as the “national savior for everything.”
Ch. 8 Who Cares if the Welfare State Makes Sense?
Good intentions are understandable, so people say, ‘Let government take care of this. See to it that everyone has what they need.'” Payne objects that The welfare state has been adopted without any significant effort to calculate the logic and mechanics of this apparatus of giving and taking. He acknowledges that opponents of the welfare state questioned its fairness, the impact on freedom, family and the principle of self-reliance. That cultural impact has been disastrous. But Payne concentrates on who is being hurt by the process of taking, and the waste and costs involved in that process of transfers. One part of it is the “philanthropic illusion,” the idea that government is like a philanthropist doing good handing out bennies. The complex tax consequences, including unsustainable borrowing and the inflation tax, are hidden. Another illusion is the “frictionless state.” This ignores compliance costs of the tax system. In prepared testimony Payne noted that tax compliance labors was “the equivalent of the entire labor force of the states of Indiana, Iowa, and Maine put together, working all year long on nothing but tax compliance labor–a staggering waste of manpower.”
Recently Dave Rubin pointed out that Candace Owens advocated ending the welfare state because of its malicious effects and Rubin asked Heather MacDonald for her reaction: “Government cannot do social uplift. It doesn’t know how to do it.”
Ch. 9 Outside the Box: A Brief History of Questioning Government
Questioning government as society’s problem-solving agency “has been exceedingly rare” throughout history. Even free-market economists like Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and Frederic Hayek have endorsed government management for infrastructure, education, welfare and scientific research. The religious tradition against use of force has been of little help but the first secular critic Wm. Godwin was rather penetrating in 1793 (p. 122). “To be a really thoroughgoing critic, the analyst needs to focus on government’s fundamental defining characteristic, its basis in force.” Yet dictionaries, activists, academic political scientists and politicians evade that fact, “reflecting the modern tendency to view force with distaste.” On the other hand, Mao Tse-tung “put the point in frank terms: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The good news is that “Should this evasiveness about government break down, it will be a sign that civilization’s unquestioning faith in this institution is beginning to wane.”
Ch. 10 My Neighbor: The Future Everyone Wants
“There is reason for optimism in the longer run…[because] faith in government appears to be breaking down at an increasing rate.” Two relatively recent historical changes explain this: more freedom to criticize government and modern communications. “Each day’s social media feed now gives the average Joe more evidence that government is, er, stupid.” Witness the disastrous fumbling over so-called Covid-19. See Payne’s footnote 1 (p. 162) for wise insight on the best way to “grapple with this extraordinarily complex cost-benefit analysis.” Yet cultural presumptions are abandoned only gradually.
The “Neighbor” Ideal consists of smaller, personal, and voluntary processes are better. Payne cites a remarkable 2017 article in The Nation, of all places, by David Bollier, “The Next Big Thing Will Be a Lot of Small Things.” He wrote, “Instead of trying to reassemble the broken pieces of the old order, progressives would be better off developing a new vision more suited to our times…it’s now clear that the answers won’t come from Washington.” Payne writes: “It’s time to shift attention away from the question, How can we use government to improve the world? Instead, it would be healthier to begin by asking, How can I help my neighbor?” My only caution here is don’t let the altruist doctrine of self-sacrifice run away with you. I rely on Ayn Rand once again: “A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind…Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work–pride is the result” (Lexicon, p. 398).
Appendix: Transcending Big Government, Avenues of Reform and Evolution (10 pp.)
Payne suggests a number of practical methods to move toward a freer, more libertarian society, ranging from protecting and expanding individual rights (e.g., repeal occupational licensing), privatization, economic pressure (user fees, matching donations required for bureaucracy), decentralization (e.g., charter schools), supermajority requirements for legislatures, spontaneous replacement by volunteer efforts, and reining in liability law.
It’s a wonderful book. Enjoy.
The Big Government We Love to Hate;
Exploring the Roots of Political Malaise
By James L. Payne
216 pages; paperback, $9.95; ISBN: 978-0-915728-28-2 Publication Date: January 4, 2021 http://www.Governmentlove2hate.com
Lytton Publishing Company
Sandpoint, ID • 208-263-3564 • firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.Lyttonpublishing.com