Government: A Means to an End, or an End in Itself?

The American Family Gazette

Volume I, 0912


This is a subject that overlaps the previous posting about the tail wagging the dog.  There we looked at government in terms of size.  Here we look at government in terms of, for lack of a better term, its input vs. its output.  Or, are we at the point where the cost of government is simply to support and maintain an institution for its own sake, rather than for “our” sake?

A significant issue, obviously, but one that is difficult to measure objectively. Firstly, just what is government supposed to do, or not do? We have a template for what it is supposed to do: ” . . .   establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, . . .”  Thus starts our Constitution.  And from this we may infer what government is not supposed to do: apply itself contrary to or in contravention of this mandate. That’s both clear and understandable.  So, how’s government doing?

Well, as we’ve seen, it’s gotten a lot bigger to try and meet the growing needs of our
country. And as any organism or institution gets big it needs a certain amount of nourishment or input just to maintain its own size, structure and stability.  If we the people want a fair and equitable judicial system, we need an institution capable of providing this.  If we want to provide for the common defense, we need a defense establishment—of some reasonable scope— to deal with the perceived need.  And on and on it goes for the various arms of government that have responsibility for our basic public functions as set out in the Constitution.  But the question inevitably comes up, when is enough enough? Need government institutions, once established, go on forever?  Should offices established for specific purposes be allowed to expand their scope and authority just because they can, or want to?  When is the population they claim to serve, or want to serve in fact served by their efforts, and to what degree? Tough questions!

I’m not basing my questioning on simple economic justifications: cost-benefit analysis, although this is a consideration.  I’m basing it here more on just how much authority, control or influence or even information we should permit government in our affairs, broadly considered.  Instinctively, most of us don’t want someone telling us what we can or cannot do, or how we do it—unless it is very clearly necessary (We define necessary as being in our own best self-interest). In some areas this is not that difficult to decide.  But in other areas, often covered by the very broad concept of “promoting the general welfare”, this question of us or government who sets the rules is contentious.  And it is in this specific unspecific area that government has shown the most encroachment over the past hundred years or so, and certainly since the 1930’s.  To provide this expanded government “guidance” government has had to establish permanent bureaucracies to carry out its mandated functions.  Today these are extensive. Anything extensive tends to be self-interested and self-centered to some degree. But are they principally self-serving, or are they truly public-serving?  Again, tough question.  How are we to measure this?  Is it simply as we pointed out in the past posting, what are we spending on these services as a percent of our GDP?  That doesn’t seem good enough.  There must be a better way to measure value and utility.

We also have the issue of duplicated services at differing levels of government.  Consider education, right up from the local town, county, state and now the federal government putting its two-cents worth in on how this is to be carried out.  Waste is another consideration, even if it isn’t strictly within our question of just who government is serving, the public or itself. Definition plays in here as well.  Just what constitutes “defense”, or “Homeland Security”, or ”the general welfare”? These can be as broad or as narrow as someone may decide.  But who decides, government or those governed?  Well, under our political system, we the governed delegate those decisions to those we chose to govern.  As a check here, we also rely on our judicial branch to determine if our chosen representatives, or others, are following our Constitution. And even this raises a question:  Is the Constitution a set-in-stone document, or is it a “living document” dependent in some degree on the times and conditions in which we find ourselves, from time to time?

It seems, to me, that the complexity and competing nature of society today, plus the accelerating rate-of-change we seem to be experiencing coupled with an increasingly global interplay and further compounded by an increasing tendency of politicians to cater to
Americans’ feeling that they are entitled to an ever-wider wide range of both personal and communal amenities is resulting in a government expanding in scope to try to satisfy all these insatiable demands.  The result feels like government has mushroomed; that it is becoming an end in itself.  It seems to want to deal with everything itself: Set rules, intervene for special sub-populations, arbitrate disputes, keep the economy upright, decide how to teach, police the world, and even attempt to legislate morality.  But this isn’t necessarily self-generated. People, today mostly via interest-group-actions, demand that it deal with everything—but especially and particularly with their own special demands:  labor, business, immigrants, consumers, environmentalists, the handicapped, the poor, the rich and a myriad of sub-groups within these larger constellations. .  The result is pressure (from “us”) for government to “deal with it.” How?  Well, we don’t really care, just do it.  From Government’s point of view, this can only happen if it organizes (grows) to deal with what we say we want done. The result is, and has been for some time, that government is getting bigger; broader in scope and influence. Not only, and not even especially at, the federal level, although that is where much of the legislation that mandates action originates.

This is mostly done with the best of intention, I am convinced.  It is just not always accomplished with the best results, or outcomes. And size aside, it is often attempted, on a financial shoestring and the results show the commitment. In plainer language, we the taxpayer want the services, but we are often not willing to incur the cost.  We are skeptical, because when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money, government is perceived as not the best of trustees.

So the question:  is the input today for government worth the output we experience?  Again, it depends upon who “we” are.  Some get far more from than contribute to government. Many both need and perhaps even deserve it.  Others here are paying the cost.  But for all of us, the issue is, is government worth the price for what we, as Americans supporting it, get in return.  My conclusion is, no it isn’t.

This conclusion is based upon my belief (and it is primarily a belief) that (a) government may not be too big, or self-serving, but (b) on a perception that its priorities need correction. This involves a reevaluation of just what is in the best interests of the people of the United States, on a broad but not unrestricted interpretative basis.  Just where does our self-interest stand and what are our goals for ourselves? This, I would argue, is a political issue, one for all Americans who vote to have a say in.  How?  Obviously by the representatives we choose.  But this demands a fair and discernable difference to chose between.  Today this is lacking, the result of which is we have a political status-quo that is all but impossible to beyond.

Government has not, per se, become too self-serving; but there seems to be ample evidence that those we chose to rule for and on our behalf have lost sight of their responsibility in this connection and have become largely self-serving.  The result is that our national priorities are skewed to serving, to a larger degree than appropriate, the political ends of politicians as opposed to Americans in general.  How?  Through narrow special-interest pressures and the almost insatiable need for money in politics today.  I reiterate that the large percentage of voters who opt not to be either Democrats or Republicans, but who register as political Independents supports this belief that voters are to a very large degree fed-up with this political situation. But absent some external influences here, don’t look for the two parties to change, discipline or reform themselves anytime soon.

Until we, as voting Americans, have the opportunity to challenge these two political “walled cities” don’t expect any significant changes in the output of government.  Possibly the need for greater “inputs” in the form of taxes, but this will be the necessary result of bigger government for political benefit, not better government for Americans in general.



Thomas Richard Harry
December 2009



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