The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Vacation in Somalia: The Libertarian’s Paradise

with 13 comments


Government is like television.

Lots of television programs are bad.

But television isn’t bad.

Television is just a thing, neither bad nor good.

If it’s used badly, the result is bad.

But if it’s used well, the result is good.


Government is like a hammer.

Much damage has been done with hammers.

But hammers are not bad.

A hammer is just a thing, neither bad nor good.

If it’s used badly, the result is bad.

But if it’s used well, the result is good.


Government is like . . . [your turn!]

13 Responses

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  1. I decided to make this into a post of its own: Name 10 things government does well.


    May 11, 2009 at 2:47 pm

  2. Hi M,
    I will add to you list of 20. No better yet I’ll start a list of my own. 1. We are arguably the most powerful nation of the planet, yet we have a system(flawed) that allows us to change our leadership in a non violent way. When I lived in Bombay in the 60’s government leaders were murdered and families were violated to insure transfer of power.
    Oh yea, 2. My American passport.
    then 3. title 19, and 4. WIC & 5. I forget which amendment that says “free Speech”
    And Paul said, ‘Think on these things, what ever is good…’
    M, you are positively subversive. I”m setting here thinking of things the Gov. does well.
    Thanks Jessica!/ Kevin.
    Ps. Thank, M for Sunday’s sermon. I heard the groans of my companions and knew they found your words uncomfortable just like me.


    May 11, 2009 at 10:43 am

    • Thanks, Sharon, for the good examples and you’re very welcome for the sermon. It was uncomfortable to me, too! But what a church we have – there was a flood of positive comment – and that after preaching something so very disturbing. I was astonished at how people seemed to embrace and even welcome the rugged, loving example of Jesus at the expense of their own comfort and the temptations to nationalism and nativism that surround us.


      May 11, 2009 at 12:43 pm

  3. that was funny. Now you have cholera. :-)

    Kevin queries: Other than the military, can you name 10 things that the government has done really well, better than the private sector? (that will probably be a long post, huh? ;-))


    May 8, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    • You betcha. Off the top of my head, I’ll give you twenty, most of which are under-funded for the work they do:
      1. The FAA. Crashes are a rarity here, thanks to equipment safety tests and massively successful air flight controlling.
      2. Medicaid: private sector insurance companies make money by ditching their customers when they get very sick. Medicaid picks up the castoffs.
      3. Social Security: What if Mr. Bush had succeeded in privatizing SS before the markets crashed? Can you imagine how many old people would be working at WalMart, since their SS would have been cut in half? And did you know that before SS, thousands of older Americans simply starved to death?
      4. SCHIP: Healthcare insurance for children who would not otherwise have it – enormously preventive of school absence, long-term illness, loss of physical and mental development
      5. The CDC: How do we know that the virulence of H1N1 is less than expected? Who is telling the world that US pork is safe to eat? How do we know whether an illness is H1N1 or not? It’s all the CDC.
      6. The school hot lunch program: For many children, their only serious nutrition all day every day. What industry would do it?
      7. The Soil Conservation Service: though bureaucratic, there is no private industry comparable. How vastly different would America be without the wetlands your dad and a thousand like him have created.
      8. Head Start: kids from homes that have seriously dysfunctional emotional and learning environments have benefited enormously
      9. The Department of Motor Vehicles: how many mistakes have you had on your car registrations or titles?
      10. E911 commissions: how long does it take an ambulance or fire truck to reach you if a child who can call 911 can’t tell the operator an address? When I first came to Washington, there was simply no way to know. People died.
      11. University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics – known around the world for ground-breaking medical research.
      12. Open meetings laws for city, county, and state government office – nothing like it at all in the private sector. But if public officials make decisions without notifying us, they can go to jail.
      13. Free public libraries – the envy of the entire world.
      14. Public health services – how many lives have been saved by free or low-cost immunizations? Show me something analogous in the private sector.
      15. The Interstate Highways Commission: we enjoy the best auto and truck transportation system in the world.
      16. The FDIC: how safe is your bank account? Prior to the FDIC, if your bank got greedy and lent more than it could support, many lost their life savings.
      17. The FDA: how do I know that the Adderall I take is really Adderall, and really the dosage I’m told? Much of the world does not. The FDA constantly catches businesses attempting to cheat.
      18. The Federal Elections Commission: A missionary friend of mine tells me that Africans are utterly astonished at the speed and accuracy with which US elections take place, and the efficiency and safety with which the US changes its administrations.
      19. Uniform Building Codes: my son works for a concrete contractor, and can tell you with confidence that there are pre-code homes in Washington that have sewer lines that run under Sunset Park and dump raw sewage into the creek that flows into the trailer court.
      20. NASA – what business has landed on the moon?
      21. The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop – one of the premiere writing teaching centers in the whole world. Only a handful do it as well.

      I could go on all day. To me, the greatest myth and most blatantly pitched propaganda is that business is efficient. It simply isn’t, except at the mom-and-pop level.

      Take a look at all the advertising materials that coat the walls and desks at your doctor’s office. You paid for them. Can a farm afford to operate like that – showering potential buyers with gifts, sending $60,000 a year representatives to call on them?

      When I worked for Honeywell in the early 80s, word was among employees that Honeywell spent one-third of its revenue correcting errors.

      The difference between business and government is simply that we can force government to tell us what it’s doing. Business is marketing itself, and keeps its downside very quiet. Consider AIG. Consider Bernie Madoff. Consider Enron. Consider GM. Consider Chrysler. Consider Iowa National Mutual, which built the largest building in downtown Cedar Rapids, with solid gold plumbing in the executive bathrooms – and was taken over by the Iowa Commissioner of Insurance in the 80s for not being able to cover its policies.

      [later] – Oh, by the way – I wouldn’t have mentioned the military even if it hadn’t been excluded. As Dwight Eisenhower warned, “the military-industrial complex” has become arguably the most powerful, wasteful, and corrupt entity in American government. The reason? It’s manipulated by private-sector businesses, who stand to make vast sums of money by encouraging Congress and the president to remain at war. When a large item – say, a fighter plane – is contracted, businesses move production of sub-assemblies into place all over the nation. Thus, when the time comes to end the project, a hundred members of Congress have districts that will lose jobs, and those representatives will work to extend the program.


      May 9, 2009 at 4:37 pm

      • Monte,

        You presented as evidence of effective government SS and Medicaid, both of which are bankrupt, even with the ridiculously low amount they pay doctors. Doctors who accept medicaid must rely on private patients to pay the medicaid bills, as every medicaid patient is a loss to them. Pure ethics allow them to treat these people with respect. It certainly doesn’t happen in parts of the world where most patients are “single-payer.”

        The DMV has made mistakes on my paperwork, after I waited in line several hours, and spent just as long on paperwork proving that my car was paid off several mortgage companies ago. You are lucky it hasn’t happened to you.

        I very much doubt Honeywell spent 30% of its revenue correcting errors. Did you get this information from any reasonable source, or is it merely heresay? 30% waste would drive a lot of companies out of business.

        Private businesses sell trips into space today. They have a much better safety record than NASA missions, and they manage to do mathematical conversions properly. When there seems to be unusually cold weather or anything unexpected, these private missions can adjust quickly. Not so with government.

        If public officials make decisions without notifying us, they can go to jail? You are incredibly naive about what goes on in government.

        The reason pharmaceuticals are so ridiculously expensive is the FDA. At least 100 million dollars must be spent on every drug that goes through the approval process, whether it is approved or not. During these 7-10 years, even though the drug could save lives, it is not allowed on the market. How many people does the FDA allow to die every year in the interest of “safety?”

        After this insanely long and expensive process, the price that these companies may charge for drugs is heavily regulated by government. Of course, they have great incentive to wine and dine doctors; if they can’t increase the price of their medications, they must sell like drug pushers. Thanks to the FDA, many consumers now buy their medications in Mexico anyway, where the drugs are sold without charging the costs of regulation. FDA requirements have driven most pharmaceutical companies out of business. When you wonder why we don’t have a cure for a rare ailment, look to the FDA. It simply isn’t worth going through such an expensive approval process for medications that can’t be sold in large numbers.

        My free public library has twice claimed I did not return items that I either returned or did not borrow. When I requested materials through interlibrary loan, it took 1.5 months to receive the materials from a domestic source, and they were due back a week later (two days after I returned from a business trip). Like most people, I prefer to shop at Amazon or rent from private sources, where I can receive my materials much more quickly and have a much greater selection of technical materials. Buying materials from Europe is faster than requesting them from a domestic library.

        Congratulations if you were one of the few Americans to get the government-controlled H1N1 vaccine before you got the virus. No one bothered with the vaccine where I live; it appeared much too late. Fortunately, the virus wasn’t worth anywhere near the level of hype the CDC created. The CDC would’ve been better off concerning itself with the common cold, which kills more people annually than any of “epidemic” scares of the last decade.


        August 4, 2010 at 7:05 pm

        • My, my! Your library has twice claimed you did not return books in error! Now there’s a reason to vote for Rand Paul.

          Our free public library system is the envy of the world. Mine is awesome – and it’s part of the reason I love living where I do. It’s the cultural and intellectual hub of the community.

          Which proves my point: it isn’t government that’s the problem. It’s bad government. For where government is well managed, its successes are unparalleled. Some is good, some is bad – just like business.

          Exaggerating it all into badness has created a self-fulfilling prophecy: if government can’t be good, there’s no point in hiring the best and brightest. There’s no point in demanding top quality management. There’s no point in expecting managers to squeeze every penny. There’s no point in noticing that a great deal of it works very well. There’s no point in learning from other governments when their best efforts exceed our own. There’s no point in expecting it to stifle our Enron’s, protect us from BP’s, or insist that Google can’t take away our rights of privacy or free speech – for everyone knows government is worse than business.

          We can over-generalize into ever-greater inferiority, or we can take the hard but right road of expecting and getting the very best.


          August 21, 2010 at 1:14 pm

        • Private companies are in space, but, who developed that technology? Who developed the semi-conductor chip? Who developed the internet? It’s nice to have that internet and semi-conductor technology so that so many great companies can use it to build great businesses like Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, etc. It’s a lot like the interstate highway system. Oh, and I’ll take my parents and in-laws on social security and medicare rather than suffering and relying on me to take care of them (like almost all baby boomers they are insolvent and bankrupt and they are all republicans). Social security is not bankrupt either. Medicare is in trouble and that’s why we need a lockbox, but, the retirement of the largest generation in American history and people living much longer (thanks to the CDC) has not helped either. I’d also say that one of the great accomplishments of government (in almost every town in the U.S., but, not all) is clean water which has lengthened lives across the country.


          July 2, 2012 at 11:18 pm

  4. The gay marriage example is interesting. Why does government issue marriage licenses in the first place? Isn’t marriage the domain of churches? One of the many cases where butting out is the only way to preserve the peace.


    May 8, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    • Actually, no, through most of history marriage has been more a civil contract than a religious or a private matter. Even in the time of Jesus, no synagogues hosted weddings, no rabbis officiated. It was a civil arrangement between two families backed by the force of law, with penalties available for breach of “contract.”

      The church is the newcomer, not government.

      By the way, I very much admire the principles of care for the poor created by God himself in the government after the Exodus. There was an original, equal division of land, which was the means of producing personal wealth. Land was bought, sold, and inherited. But every 50 years, the land returned to its original families, and each family had a renewed opportunity to start out more-or-less even with everyone else. There was no need for multi-generational poverty and little chance of multi-generational power built on wealth.

      What does it tell us about what matters to God?


      May 8, 2009 at 2:55 pm

  5. I do feel the need to protect myself against the telephone company. But I don’t want to carry on without it, either. What I buy from it is mostly good.


    May 8, 2009 at 12:07 pm

  6. Government is.. by definition… the entity that arrogates to itself the monopoly on use of physical force.

    So, more correctly, government is not like television. Government is the entity — the only entity — that can shut down television stations it does not like.

    Government *is* like a hammer. It is not like a pamphlet, which can only persuade; it is not like a book or a newspaper, which you can choose to accept or not; it is not like a magazine, which can only attract readers voluntarily, who find value in what it offers. Government is a hammer, which exercises force over the unwilling.

    Government is the entity that shuts down choices, and dictates: Your religion is acceptable, but hers may not be practiced. You may marry who you choose, but he may not marry who he chooses.

    Government, in the words of Lenny Bruce, is like one big telephone company.


    May 7, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    • Zin, good comments, but I think you overstate the case. For instance:
      1) Many entities arrogate to themselves the use of physical force, from mafias to militias. None of them are wholly good or wholly bad. They are just things, led by people.
      2) Governments exercise force over many, some of whom are unwilling in some situations. Americans – even libertarians – are rarely anarchists.
      3) Governments also protect choices. My state recently held that prohibiting gay marriage was beyond the authority given by the duly adopted state constitution. The US Supreme Court recently held that police could not search automobiles without probable cause.
      4) So, I think you demonstrate my point. Government is fallible and subject to abuse. It is also capable of a great deal of good. I’m glad for the FAA – I’m not afraid I’ll crash when I fly. I’m glad for the CDC’s work in this H1N1 pandemic. I’m glad that black people are no longer hung by lynch mobs. I’m glad that we can raise hell about torture and Bush’s invasion of privacy rights. We’ll be better for it.

      Government is just a thing. Like most powerful things, it attracts abusers. But that it is corruptible calls for vigilance, not for anarchy; abusers are there, too.


      May 8, 2009 at 12:02 pm

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