The Tail that Wags the Dog

The American family Gazette

Volume I, 0912

 

Government is becoming—or has already become—the tail that wags the dog.  We hear that often enough, but just what is that supposed to mean? Usually, that the bureaucracy of government is becoming—or already has become—the end or objective of societal activity, not the means to achieving societal goals.  We’ll talk a bit about this.  It’s a closely related matter, but here, I want to concentrate on the issue of size, relative size. Why?  Because we seem to equate size with importance, or significance—even with good and bad—and there’s little doubt that government has gotten big and will most likely continue to grow. Why should that be a concern? Because it may signify that, in simple terms, we who are empowered to elect, monitor and control government, have, in truth, lost the ability (or will) to adequately do so. In even simpler terms: the horse may have the bit in his teeth and will do pretty much what it wants. This is about as simply as one can break down this tail wagging the dog metaphor.

Well, that’s some claim, but is it really true?  Just because government is big, and by some measures getting bigger, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s out of control, you might say.  And I would agree, it doesn’t. But to get a better feel for what I’m getting at, let’s take a look at a few numbers here:

Gross Domestic Product (GDP): This is a measure of the total goods and services produced within the national borders in a given year. It’s a statistical denominator against which official American seems to want to compare just about everything, or at least everything of even remotely an economic nature, to take a reading on our national health & well-being. Some say in this connection it is misused. Be that as it may, it is the “gold standard” of statistical comparison in America. We look at taxes as a percent of GDP; of defense spending (or almost any other type spending) to GDP; what’s the deficit as a percent of GDP?  What are we spending on education, as a percent of GDP? And on it goes.  It’s an easily understood means of comparison, over time, of where we are spending all that money we are making from our national economic activity. The fault some find with it is that while it may measure quantity, it questionably measures quality in evaluating society’s wellbeing. We keep this in mind.

The federal government’s spending is about 20% of gross domestic product (GDP), taking 2004 as a benchmark.  Total government spending—federal, state & local—represented about 36% of GDP.  That says, of every dollar America’s domestic economy generates, $0.35 is the result of some government activity.  In 1975 this relationship was $0.34; in 1950 $0.24 and in 1925 it was only $0.11. So, we can say from the numbers, today, government’s relationship to our over-all domestic “output” is more than treble what it was less than 100 years ago.  And look:  by 2010 it is projected to increase to $0.42 (or 42% of GDP).

Of course, our GDP has gone up significantly over the years as well. But the question is, is there some inherent relationship between government spending and the size or growth of GDP? There are obvious periods when government spending spurts, such as during wars, or, today, during economic down-turns.  But in general, is there any inherent relationship?  Is there some clear cause & effect working here?  Why do we want to keep defense spending at a certain percent of GDP, or education spending or taxes or anything else? What’s wrong with GDP expanding and government spending, or any portion of it remaining constant (in dollar terms) or even declining? It can’t be biological, as in the real life case of the tail growing right along with the dog.  Is it a special-interest kind of thing to be sure one’s favorite cause is getting its fair share? Is it just a perceived fair-sharing of the national economic pie?  We generally expect our country to grow, and hence our GDP to increase right along with it.  Why?  Because this generally offers opportunity for increased personal as well as national prosperity and for an increasingly comfortable quality of life. And quality of life (consumerism) has over the past century become the driving force and measure of the well-being of our society, at the expense, some say, of nurturing the state of our civic life.

But there is a cost to society of government and its growth.  Government is not a producer.  It is a revenue/income consumer, through taxes it must collect to pay for its activities. These activities primarily just redistribute income.  We all know this, intuitively if not always consciously: Who pays for government?  We all do. And the fact is that the more government grows, the more it costs. The question becomes, when does the cost for government exceed the benefit we get from it? Every dollar paid in taxes is a dollar not available for society to use otherwise.  That dollar is now spent (redistributed) as the government sees fit, and none of us agree with all of the ways government spends all of our taxes, all of the time. When does the tail begin wagging the dog?

As a functioning society it seems clear from the numbers that we depend upon government for our economic and other wellbeing a lot more today than when we had a “tail” on the national dog of less than 12%  (economically speaking) back in the mid 1920’s. Today, government is rapidly growing to almost half of what we spend/produce domestically. Does this mean we, as a country, are considerably more dependent upon government activity to maintain prosperity than we were 25 or 50 or certainly 75 years ago? Does it mean we, as a society, are better or worse off today?  Well, these are judgment calls. That makes them a political call.  To a large degree, that’s what separates conservatives (we need less government involvement in our society) from liberals (we need more government involvement in society).

So, who’s right?  It’s not so much a matter of right as it is a matter of just what kind of society we want to live in. To a degree, that’s a trade-off between individual and community freedom of action and individual and community security (in the broadest sense).   The less governmental involvement, cost or control—or so we believe— the greater the degree that those making up society can go their own way, do their own thing where and as they see fit.   The more government is allowed to enter the picture, the greater is the need to conform, and hence the less we are “free” to do things as we see fit—or so we believe.  And it’s more than just an economic issue. It becomes an environmental issue (how we will use our natural resources), a health & welfare issue (what we should or shouldn’t eat, drink or smoke or how we treat our children or where we send them, to school; what materials we should or shouldn’t use to build or use to generate our power, to how we behave in our own private spheres of activities—should we need to wear seat belts when driving, helmets when bike-riding or floatation gear when sailing? When can we or can’t we speak on our phones?  Do we need to be vaccinated?  Big area of subjects we might consider—and quite purposely here we have skirted moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage!  In all of these, and many others, government has entered the sphere of influence to make determinations—not so much what is good for us and what isn’t—as what is “right” for us and what isn’t; what is acceptable and what isn’t. This is a predominating liberal public philosophy, the Right vs. the Good, that we need not go into here, but it is as much this as the pure economic involvement in society that has produced this perception about the tail wagging the dog concern.

So, who decides just how big the tail becomes? Well, in the end, we who decide who is elected to govern us do.  But, this is today somewhat of a legalistic rather than a practical or effective answer.  It seems that no matter who we put into office, government continues to find reason, and much of it legitimate, to increase its sphere of power and influence.  And we, the voting public not only tolerate it but for the most part, welcome it. Why?  Because, again for the most part, most of us benefit from government, directly or indirectly.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t tolerate it.  It’s really that simple.

So, who is this “most of us” I cite as evidence?  Simply put, it’s the majority; the preponderance of citizens who will benefit from government stepping in and making the (usually) modest incremental changes that will benefit (again, directly or indirectly) most of us.  Example:  No smoking laws.  Yes, there is a minority that to a degree suffers, but most of us agree that these are good regulations.  Clean water & fluoridation regulations; food and other product labeling laws; auto safety requirements; consumer protection laws; speed limits; our state and national economic and social safety nets. How many will argue against these tail-wagging-measures?

Well, to some degree, I will.  But to a much greater degree much of American business will; capitalism—as I have elsewhere used that term— will.  Why?  Because in the end, these measures cost something to implement monitor and enforce. And the most visible payee is business that is most affected by the tail’s interference, as capitalism would describe it. But in the end, society over-all absorbs the cost.  Sometimes it is in higher prices we pay; sometimes it is in higher taxes government takes. But make no mistake; someone is paying for the Tail’s actions. But capitalism, through regulation and other actions they view as limiting their “freedoms of action”, both the what and the how, and often how much, and so called classical free market mechanisms feel most put upon. Government regulations and oversights are all viewed mostly as interference with their affairs.  And truth be known, they are and they do.  But, again, when do we know that enough government involvement is enough, or is it ever enough?

Again, this in the end becomes a political question (“The political system is that segment of society that draws together or integrates all the others.  Within the political arena decisions are made that are binding upon the whole of society . . .”).  And, this question isn’t really between conservatives and liberals, it’s between the haves and the haves-not, or if you prefer in our society, the haves-less. In this case between the haves, who stand to lose something—either monetarily or some other “freedom” of action presently enjoyed—and those who are in one way or another paying for what the haves have.  Here power is dominant.  Power is mostly in the hands of the haves.  So if the haves-less didn’t have a tail working (largely) in their favor, they would continue to do without.  Example:  Product labeling laws, or smoking limitations, or speed limits, clean water, minimum working conditions and wages, or in the end a system of equitable law and justice where Might should not make Right. And one more we seldom think of, of government limited in its approach to governing.  Now this may seem contrary to the line of reasoning used here, but it’s not.  Government and those governing must come to the public—both the haves and the haves-less— with strict regularity for us to either validate their actions or repudiate them.  It’s not perfect, but seems to still function generally in the manner intended.

So, bottom line here is this: the tail, government, is important in balancing the needs of both the haves and the haves-less. If economically we thrive, if GDP increases but there is a serious skew in how that economic pie is allocated, earned, shared or divided up, we as a society will suffer through unreasonable and in the end unsustainable inequality, not only of results but of opportunity. But equally as potentially serious is that if we allow the tail to consume the vast proportion of what we all invest and work to produce (and spend) through siphoning off of excessive taxes, we will likewise suffer. Growth will be puny.  Incentive to invest will be minimum. Our societal wellbeing will deteriorate, our quality of life, stagnate.

Here we clearly have a problem.  How much is enough?  Is it ever enough if we are to meet and maintain some reasonable balance within society, i.e., the ability to please most of the people all of the time, and all of the people at least most of the time.  Questionably, our politics today isn’t working to deliver government up to this basic need.

Thomas Richard Harry
December 2009

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