Sunday, September 2, 2007
This is a question that is not asked nearly enough in the case of government action, particularly, it seems to me, in the case of Steamboat Springs city government. As each new issue arises, the City Council, the newspaper, and most of the populace seems to immediately consider the question of how the government should act to address the issue. We seem to have forgotten to analyze the initial question, which is who should be deciding the issue.
This country was founded on the principle of limited government by citizens who had tasted the ill effects of an intrusive and oppressive government from England. As Thomas Jefferson put it, "My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government."
We have to remember that government action is, by its nature, coercive. In the case of regulation, the liberties of the regulated are limited by the actions of the government. In the case of taxes, as Ayn Rand often said, the government confiscates the assets of the taxpayer at the point of a gun. Rand's characterization may seem extreme, but just consider what would happen if you steadfastly refused to pay taxes.
I have often heard the activities of an over-energetic government justified by those who simply say that "the community" should decide. This is a euphemism. In fact, the practical result of this approach is that the government, using its coercive power, will decide. Even in cases where this government action has the support of the majority of citizens, we should all reflect on the words of James Madison, the primary author of our Constitution, who said, "In Republics, the great danger is that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority."
You should also consider that often government officials or regulators are simply not well situated to make decisions. Often they simply do not have a good understanding of the activities that they purport to regulate. In this regard, I often remember a story told by my father, who worked all his life in the Oklahoma oil field in a plant that produced propane and butane (referred to as LPG). On the door of the Washington office that regulated this activity were the words "Low Pressure Gas." This is a bit disconcerting since LPG stands for "Liquefied Petroleum Gas." We should not assume that the government's knowledge of any regulated activity is any greater at the state, county, or city level or that less absurd results will be achieved at any of these levels.
Here think of your favorite government boondoggle, like the Bridge to Nowhere, all those government projects in West Virginia named for Robert Byrd, nonsensical zoning, inclusionary zoning fees with no provision for their use, huge consulting fees, endless meetings, etc. You get the idea.
This is not to say that government should never be the party to make critical decisions. Even Adam Smith saw that government had three important obligations: 1) to protect its citizens from foreign invasion and oppression; 2) to administer internal justice and 3) to erect and maintain public works and institution "which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small group of individuals, to erect or maintain."
In the intervening two centuries, the reach of government has continued to expand to our detriment. In this regard, we should again consider the words of James Madison, "I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."
And so, when we all hear of the next local controversy, let's all stop to consider, "Why is this a question for the City Council?
Rick Akin is an attorney practicing in Steamboat Springs and Austin, Texas, a former member of the Pilot & Today Editorial Board, and a director of the Conservative Leadership Council of Northwest Colorado.