Two Become One

Did I just use a Spice Girls song title for the title of this blog post?! Saints preserve us…

I was talking with a colleague who mentioned the complicated nature of a particular government form, where documentation had to be obtained in triplicate. In wondering about why people hate the government so much, it occurs to me that we need a more integrated perspective on government action. One part is something I’ve mentioned previously, the need for non-anti-governmentalists (in other words, people who see government as something other than an automatic force for bad, maybe even potentially a force for good) to recognize and work on the very real experience in people’s lives of government incompetence and waste. You can’t look credible defending government action in principle without addressing government inefficiencies in practice.

Another part of a more integrated perspective on government action has to do with the economic function of government action. The root of one form of anti-governmentalism lies in economics, a discipline conditioned to see government action as inherently less efficient than private action. The concept of “rent-seeking” is a way of talking about corruption – a “rent” is some economic gain, whether a sweetheart deal for a relative or a straight-up bribe. Government contracts offer rents, and politicians, in the economic model, are seen primarily as rent-seekers. (Political science differs in also seeing politicians as motivated by maintaining office, not just to preserve access to rents, but as an end in itself – because people love power.)

On the other hand, sociologically there’s something interesting about government as a potential guarantor of equal opportunity. Transparency in public proceedings is meant to make decision-making more fair. Many public funding agencies have to have some of their meetings open to the public. (Good luck proposing that at your typical private foundation!)

So, two visions of government action: rent-seeking and fairness through transparency. What if it’s both? What if the application form is in triplicate both to give someone a job or an economic rent and to be more fair/accountable? This is what I mean by a more integrated perspective on government action. I don’t think we have it, and it would be helpful in talking about the role of government in society.


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