Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What We Need is A Competent Government

I've been commenting on Mises a bit lately. If you're not familiar with Mises it's a website filled with scholars from the Austrian school of economics, whose thinking has been gaining a ton of favor from the tea party crowds lately.

Their basic tenants, as far as I understand them, well, just listen to Ron Paul, or his son Rand. It's anti-fed, pro-gold standard, anti-government in practically every sense of the word. It seems they would like to shrink government's role down to simply one of contract enforcement between property owners and bend over backwards to show how literally every problem can be solved in this way. I'm sure I'm oversimplifying, but not by much.

They make solid points and it would be wrong to dismiss them completely. But I think this worldview is problematic in the same way any extreme view is: the world is too complex to be explained away so easily.

One of the strongest arguments libertarians make is to point out how badly central governments have messed up throughout history. The list is long - Hitler's Germany, Mao's China, Stalin's Russia. And you can literally go on and on throughout the world's history. People in power tend to abuse it and even well intentioned dictators from above can never properly manage the world's affairs.

Their answer, it seems, is to go to the other extreme - give all the power to the people. But this has it's problems as well. Most notably, populations ultimately get segmented between rich and poor, the weak and the powerful. There will always be ways for those with power to build up institutions (corporations) and use them to exploit others either explicitly or subtlety.

There are other problems as well. Obviously, it's really hard to imagine how our environment would be preserved through the markets. All it takes is one polluter to take short cuts on cleanliness so they can offer their goods at a cheaper price than that of another company trying to be green.

But so what that libertarianism has its problems, it's way better than the alternatives. At least, the people have freedom and no one is getting shipped off to Siberia.

But, I'm not sure people really understand how bad things can be without a government actively doing what it should be doing. Global warming, in theory and in fact most scientists agree, can lead to catastrophe and there is simply not a viable market solution for it. People have literally died because of poorly enforced or inadequate regulation. The economic meltdown we're experiencing now and the one we experienced in the 1930's was because the government fell asleep at the wheel allowing the markets to spin out of control.

There are a thousand reasons catastrophe can happen. Mostly we live in a world of black swans where extreme events that have enormous consequences are more common than people think. This happens no matter what simply because the world is complicated and unpredictable.

What we need is something more complex and admittedly tougher to get right in order to deal with a difficult world. We need good people in government and good people keeping those in government accountable. We need both a top down and a bottom up economy. We need a Central Bank, but we also need people generally to be responsible consumers, lenders and borrowers. We need accountability and responsibility, but we also need a safety net. We need charities to allow people to help others without compulsion because many problems will only be solved at the ground level. But we also need adequate taxation so that the government can provide resources and support in a way that would never be possible otherwise.

In short, we need something like we've got now, we just need to find ways to do it better. And for all of our problems, well, it's much better than the alternatives.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Are guns on the short list of the most important problems facing our state?

Apparently, that's what the Arizona state legislature believes. I'm not sure really what to say about the stream of guns related bills coming from the Republicans of this great state. Do we have a gun problem?

The politics of that surround guns is a little bit like abortion or gay marriage in that you have to lay down your opinion to establish your cred with either party. It's identity politics. And it's rare to see a balanced discussion on this issue. Because the right to bear arms is codified in the US Constitution, the Republicans seem to have the upper hand on this issue which is why you see most Democrats running away from it.

But can't you preserve the right to bear arms and still regulate it? Gun restriction laws do have merit and don't necessarily violate the second amendment.

My relationship with guns, well... I don't have much of one. My parents never owned guns. I never really went hunting. I've shot guns once or twice, but it's not something I'm really craving to do. But I have no problems with those who do own guns. And as long as they don't point a gun at me, then we're cool, right? But I'm not sure I want co-workers bringing guns into work. Nor, do I really like the idea of people wandering around a shopping mall with guns in holsters. I don't think too many people are doing this - those that do, I would guess, are in the minority.

So, what is the point of all this emphasis on changing our gun laws?

"B1201 contains several other components that gun rights activists have been pushing, such as prohibiting government agencies from adopting rules that are more restrictive than what’s expressed in state law, and allowing a person to sue for damages if a local ordinance, for example, violated this bill’s provisions.

But the bill’s main provision would abolish existing statutes that prohibit people from bringing firearms into a public building or event after being requested to surrender them for storage.

Instead, the bill would allow a government agency or municipality to ban firearms on its premise only if it could provide for a security officer, install a metal-detection device or other machine that screens for weapons and post a readily seen sign that prohibits firearms.

In addition, the establishment must also have a secure firearms locker near an entrance.

The proposal, however, still exempts school districts and community colleges from areas where firearms are allowed. Another bill working its way through the Senate specifically prohibits educational institutions from preventing people with carry permits from having weapons on campus.

SB1201, which the Senate passed by a party-line 21-8 vote, is but the latest of several proposals that seek to further ease gun restrictions in the state. Many of those measures have been successful in the past."

Can you see why we get made fun of by Steven Colbert:

This bill, to me, seems somewhat symbolic, but it also seems to have fear at its core. We had some high profile shootings both in Tucson and around the country over the last several years. And now all public buildings either have to be locked down with security where everyone is scanned for weapons airport style, or everyone now can enter these buildings fully armed ready to defend themselves.

For one thing, shootings of this sort are extremely and statistically rare. I don't have the statistics on hand, but I would guess that more people die through accidental shootings from careless gun owners or from the violence in inner cities among the poor.

None of these laws are really going to affect me much. I'm guessing most teachers or students will continue to choose against carrying a weapon into the classroom even if they are legally allowed. I'm also guessing most people will leave their guns at home when visiting a public building.

And if someone wanted to commit mass murder, are we sure that a crowd of heavily armed people will be a deterrent? I'm not sure if I would feel safer if a bunch of people pulled out their weapons and begin returning fire? I doubt most people with guns would even attempt to do so.

Mostly, I think these gun laws are mostly a waste of time.