Does Government Only Worsens the Problems it intends to fix?

“Government intervention never works but in fact prolongs and worsens the problems it is intended to fix.” Senator Rand Paul

I came across this quote recently while doing some research on Republican’s views of “The Road to Serfdom,” by Friedrich Hayek. Hayek is the intellectual forefather of much conservative thinking on government intervention into the economy. Paul’s statement was published in an essay he wrote for The Intercollegiate Review, a magazine for college Republicans. It is available on line at Rand Paul’s Challenge to Students.  The essay is a year old, but it seems to encapsulate Senator Paul’s hostility toward the government.

So how accurate is Paul’s statement? Does government intervention make things worse? There is no doubt that government can often be ineffective and bumbling. We see examples in the paper every day. But does that mean that government only makes things worse when it tries to fix a problem?

Let’s think about a couple of examples here in the United States, to test this theory.

After the Second World War, President Eisenhower decided that the nation had a transportation problem, and he proposed a government program to fix it. The problem was that it was extremely difficult to drive from one side of our country to another. Eisenhower had recently commanded a military force that pushed from the shores of France deep into Germany, and done much of that on Europe’s road system. Eisenhower decided that the United States needed something similar, and proposed our interstate highway system. This system is now fully built. Did it worsen the problems of national transportation?

There’s no doubt that highways have created a bunch of unanticipated problems. These range from expanding urban sprawl to the demise of small towns as commerce moved to the nearest Interstate exit. But did the government intervention into the national transportation system “prolong and worsen the problem it intended to fix” as Paul flatly states. Nope, not even close.

Here’s another example. During the creation of the nation the founders felt that it was important for the government to establish a system to protect inventors and creators, to allow them to profit from their creations as a way to spur innovation. And so they included a provision in the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson established the United States Patent Office. Did the patent office “worsen the problem it was intended to fix”? Not even remotely. The United States has the most dynamic and innovative economy in the world, largely because of the way we protect intellectual property.

But clearly these aren’t the kinds of things that Paul and other conservatives are talking about when they condemn government action. Mostly they’re talking about welfare and economic regulations. So, do these programs make things worse? It’s hard to analyze if you only focus on this country, but far more clear if you look at all the nations of the world.

Put simply, those nations with robust welfare systems have far less poverty than those nations that don’t. Just compare Western Europe with South America, or Africa. And well regulated economies are far more productive than lightly regulated economies. Compare the OECD countries (the 20 richest countries in the world) with most of the rest of the world.

Obviously there are outliers. There are a few remaining communist countries, like Cuba, Burma, Cambodia, and North Korea, and their economies are in shambles and their people in poverty. Clearly total government control of the economy as a means to ameliorate poverty does not work. But modern Western economies, with sensible regulation, are doing extremely well.

I’m sure conservatives will say I’m cherry picking positive examples, or creating a straw-man argument. But Paul said “government intervention never works.” He didn’t qualify it. I’m just holding him to his own words.

One of the knocks against Conservatives is that they are clueless about history. But they don’t seem to know much about the modern world either. Are they really unaware that countries without welfare systems are third world nations mired in poverty? Don’t they realize that countries without effective governments are chaotic failed states? Don’t they ever look at the world and see that countries with welfare systems have far less poverty than countries that don’t? Or don’t they see that the economies of the richest nations are regulated, while unregulated economies are pathetic?

I think that there are at least two causes to this problem. The first is that Fox News doesn’t do much international reporting. So Senator Paul doesn’t ever learn what goes on in the rest of the world. And he knows that his supporters don’t know either, so he can get away with making these statements. The other problem is the idea of American Exceptionalism, which allows conservatives to ignore the lessons from rest of the world. But the rest of the world exists, and it can teach us many valuable lessons. And one of those lessons is that government can fix problems.

The Barr Report, September 8, 2013

In his weekly e-mail to constituents, Representative Barr addressed a number of topics, but the most current and relevant was the situation in Syria.

Rep. Barr said that “I will continue to be guided by my belief that any use of military force must materially advance the national security of the United States, have a clear strategic objective, and have a clear strategy for victory. I will not support military intervention in Syria unless and until these criteria are met.”

The one point that I would take issue with is the idea that we should only use military force if and when it “materially advances the national security” of the nation. (I agree that there needs to be a clear objective and a strategy for success, though I’m not sure how to define “victory” in this sort of situation.)

The United States has long use the military to protect and advance the national interest, not just the nation’s security. Our Navy patrols the world’s oceans not just to keep peace and to keep the nation safe, but also to keep the world’s shipping routes safe and open, because that is in the national interest. We have defense treaties with far-flung nations, like South Korea, not because an attack in South Korea would directly threaten our national security but because an attack on South Korea would threaten a key regional ally and an important international economic power. Protecting South Korea doesn’t necessarily protect the United States, but it certainly protects the national interest. We have pledged our support for Israel because we have long believed that it is in the national interest to have a democratic ally in the Middle East, not because an attack on Israel would be a direct, or even tangential, threat to our national security.

I do not know, and am not suggesting, that Rep. Barr is saying that our foreign policy should be guided narrowly by concerns about national security. But there are many in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party that clearly feel that way. That, in my view, is the road to isolationism, and that is a road we went down before, with tragic results.

The reality is that the modern world is far too interconnected for any nation to be isolationist. If we want to be connected to the rest of the world economically, we also need to be connected diplomatically. That means we are part of the larger world, whether some people like it or not. And because ours is the largest economy on earth we are a major player, whether some people like it or not.

That does not mean that we should be cavalier in our use of our military, or in the use of military power. We should be willing to use military power, but only after careful and thorough consideration of tactics used and desired objectives.

Statement on Syria

The civil war in Syria has raged for over two years. In that time President Bashir al Assad has killed roughly 100,000 people. Earlier this year, as the slaughter escalated, President Obama said that it would be a “red line” if Assad used chemical weapons on his people. This spring there were some inconclusive reports that chemical weapons were used, but there was never confirmation or clear proof that they were intentionally used by Assad against his own people. Then, on August 21, there was another chemical weapon attack. This one was in the suburbs of Damascus, and there were numerous eye witness accounts and plenty of dramatic and horrific news videos showing people in death-throws from gas poisoning. This time there was abundant proof of a gas attack, and pretty clear evidence that Assad had ordered the attacks.

President Obama said that he would have no choice but respond to this. Initially he indicated that he would attack without Congressional approval. The initial reports were that Obama planned to hit targets in Syria, most likely with long range cruise missiles. The use of cruise missiles would keep American pilots out of harm’s way. Cruise missiles are also extremely precise, in many cases more precise than bombs or missiles dropped from planes. The list of potential targets included chemical weapon stockpiles, delivery systems, and command and control systems (which may or may not be a euphemism for attempting to take out Assad.)

Congress responded very unfavorably to this plan of action.

I do not think President Obama has the authority to unilaterally attack targets in Syria. The President, as Commander in Chief, clearly has the authority to engage in military action to protect the nation, and doesn’t need Congressional authority to do so. There is a long history of this, it has been done by Presidents of both parties, and has been supported by politicians from both parties. It is also clear that the Constitution says that Congress has the authority to declare war. This raised a question: is a limited military engagement an act of war? Would it be an act of war for the President to attack Syria? The answer, I think, depends upon the nature of the attack. Clearly invading the country, landing the Marines on the Mediterranean coast, would be an act of war. But is it an act of war to bomb select targets with cruise missiles? Certainly long range weapons are the tools of war, but this doesn’t mean that their every use is an act of war. In this case I don’t think that launching cruise missiles into Syria is an act of war (though clearly some Syrians would disagree). It is certainly a hostile act, but it is not much different than launching a missile from a drone. And Congress has not objected to the use of drones, so Congress doesn’t seem to think their use is an act of war.

The problem I have with this plan is that I see no direct threat to the United States. The President can clearly act unilaterally, but only when there is some cognizable threat to the nation. The President and his advisers have noted that if Assad is not punished it makes it more likely that he will use chemical weapons again (that is probably true), it makes it more likely that other countries will use chemical weapons (that is possibly true, but I doubt the probability), and it makes it possible that these weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists (this doesn’t seem very likely). So I see no direct threat to the nation that would warrant the immediate and unilateral action by the President.

The other problem that I have with the idea of limited cruise missile strikes against the Assad regime is doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose, or well defined results. If the attacks are very limited they will have very little impact. They will be little more than a slap on the wrist, and may make the U.S. look weak. Larger attacks would have a greater impact, but also a greater potential for collateral damage and death to civilians. Larger attacks could also have the effect of changing the balance of power in the civil war. We have said that we don’t want to get involved, or take sides, and there are good reasons for this. Chief among them is that one of the strongest rebel groups is comprised of Islamic religious warriors. Do we really want to risk allowing a group of militant Islamists to take over? I don’t think so.

But now the President has taken his case to Congress. He has decided not to act unilaterally, and instead has asked Congress for permission to act. Congress has the power to declare war. Congress could, if it so chooses, declare war on any nation and for any reason. There is no necessity that the nation be in danger. The standard is national interest, not immediate national safety.

This, in my mind, changes the analysis. Congress should determine whether attacking Assad is in the national interest, and not whether it is necessary to safeguard the nation. It may be in the national interest to be able to project a credible threat to rouge nations. It may be in the national interest to be seen as honoring our word. While it may not be a direct threat to the U.S. when other nations use chemical weapons on their own people, it may be in the national interest to deter the further spread of chemical weapons. Congress may also decide that it does want Assad removed from power. It may be in the long term interest of the nation to remove him, and hope for the best with a new government. Removing Assad may stabilize the region, but it also may not. Removing Assad may increase the security of Israel, but it also may not. The problem is that I have not heard a clear discussion of all of the potential possibilities.

I wish I could say this is an easy choice, but it isn’t. On balance I am not inclined to support the use of force against Syria because I don’t see the immediate danger or how it benefits the national interest, either in the long or short term. But I am deeply concerned about the issue, and the stability of the region, and I would be willing to listen to the President’s evidence and arguments. If he is able to clearly articulate how this is in the national interest, or if he can show some strong evidence of the impending spread of chemical weapons in the region, and can show some serious long range plan for what happens if Assad is overthrown, and that it may produce results favorable to the U.S. or our allies in the region, then I might support the use of force against Syria.

The New Imperialists: China in Africa

I just read three articles about growing Chinese economic and political influence in Africa. The articles are:


The Next Empire, The Atlantic Monthly, May 2010


China’s New Continent, Time Magazine, July 5, 2010,28804,2000110_2000287_2000276,00.html


Look Who’s Leading, Time Magazine, July 12, 2010,28804,2000110_2000287_2001036,00.html


The Chinese economy is growing dramatically. They have an almost insatiable need for natural resources to supply their factories, and they are turning to Africa to obtain these resources. There are a couple of different scenarios that these articles discuss. One possibility is that the Africans will see China as new colonists, trying to exploit Africa just like the Europeans did just over a century ago. Another possibility is that the systemic problems in Africa (largely widespread corruption and ineffective governments) will prevent China from doing more than merely purchasing raw resources from Africa.

But the third possibility is that with Chinese money, and the growing professionalism described in the second Time article, African could be transformed. That would certainly be great for the Africans. But it might not be so great for the United States. The first Time article notes that China has now surpassed the United States as the leading investor in Africa. If Africa modernizes with Chinese help, African countries will most likely model their economy on China’s, and will most likely turn to China for a variety of other economic, political, and military advice.

The Chinese, apparently, see Africa as an opportunity. For the most part the United States sees Africa (or at least a majority of the nations on the Continent) as a problem needing to be fixed. The Chinese are building mines to obtain raw material, factories to process the raw material into bulk commodities, and transportation systems to move those commodities to ports for shipment to the factories of China. The United States builds schools, clinics, and water treatment facilities. For all of the admirable high-mindedness of the American projects, it is the Chinese who are raising the standard of living of the people of Africa. In twenty years, if the African economy takes off, I hope the people think kindly of the United States. Because unless things change, their main trading partner will be China.