The U.S. is pretty much the only country in the world in which some constituency can be found asking, Is this really something that government should be doing? in response to a proposed law at the national or local level. But our culture is changing, and such inherent skepticism of the government is rapidly moving toward extinction.
We now tolerate a nanny state, which shows up at all levels of government. To take three recent random examples that we came across:
- January: A typical zoning fight about whether an e-cigarette lounge should open on a certain street in San Francisco pits various activists debating whether or not such an establishment fits with their views about whether this is an amenity that the neighborhood wants in light of the other retail available on that street. No one has suggested that a land owner and tenant should be able to come to private agreement on what to do with their own property.
- May: A debate about whether to allow self-serve gas stations in Oregon features arguments about supposed safety considerations, jobs, and various lawmakers’ and bureaucrats’ opinions about the impact on customer convenience. Again no one seems to be offering the opinion that the government has no right to meddle in a station owner’s business decision to begin with, nor mentioning that perhaps the free market would be better served to sort out issues of customer service and price.
- May: Opponents of a proposed ordinance in San Francisco to require warning labels on soda advertising (following the defeat of a city-wide soda tax last year) resort to insisting that sugar is soda is no different from sugar in any other product, and that “education” would be a more effective means of propaganda anyway. No one at the table is offering the argument that government has no business interfering in consumer choices about a basic product, but rather they are arguing about what tools are most effective to implement the state’s nannying agenda.
The boundaries of these and countless similar local debates is most depressing to this libertarian, not only because we feel for the normal Americans whose livelihoods are chipped away by big government, but also because of the picture they paint about how our citizens apparently want to be governed. The terms of the debate are so far away from Is this really something that government should be doing? that such questions seem quaint.
We could call these debates “technocratic,” that is, a presumption that a new government program is all that we need to solve some problem or close some gap in society, and we just have to debate what the government program will look like.
The “technocratic” moniker is not that common the U.S. It’s a familiar (though ought to be derisory) term in Europe, often used to describe some government or individual minister who comes to power in a parliamentary system. In that sense, it’s roughly a synonym for “socialist,” and simply means that apparatchiks who used to be a step or two lower, or more obscure, in the ranking of the political class assume power as sort of a compromise when the highest-ranking members can’t come to agreement on who will take the top political jobs.
“Technocratic” governments in Europe sometimes come about due to fiscal crisis, and sometimes due to elections that don’t produce clear winners. In either case, their jobs consist essentially of keeping the big government functioning within the same narrow bounds that it did before, until voters can re-mandate the not-all-that-different status quo ante. It may seem perplexing to an American audience, but our governments are looking more and more like this too.