Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Government cuts and the civil society

As political leaders at least pretend to seriously wrestle with issues surrounding the U.S. federal deficit, they often frame resistance to cuts by insisting high levels of support for social programs must remain intact.

Over the past decades, the federal government has greatly expanded its network of  social well-being "entitlements." Social Security, Medicare, subsidized public housing, Food Stamps, and school lunch programs are just some of the programs. Their advocates in government insist great harm will come if these programs are cut or eliminated.

But at best, these programs are only decades old. America flourished long before their existence.

Politicians insist they will not give up "helping" the less fortunate. In reality,  it's likely the centrally planned political control they most want to protect.

Former Communist nations in Europe wrestled with these same issues when communism fell.

In 2000, Vaclav Havel, then president of the Czech Republic, penned a column describing government's resistance to letting go of central control:
"In the ten years of postcommunist transition our new political elites take either an apathetic stance towards rebuilding civil society or actively oppose it. As soon as these elites gained power, they became unwilling to surrender any of the state authority they inherited. Many democratic, even anti-Communist politicians are now, paradoxically, defending the overblown governmental powers that are relics of the Communist era.
"This is why many schools, hospitals, cultural institutions and other establishments remain governed by centralized administrations, although they could have transformed themselves into organizations that the state would watch from a distance or support through transparent procedures. Debate on decentralization of the state has been dragging on for nine years without any government department displaying the willingness to transfer powers to regions or to municipalities without a fight. This is why taxation in our country remains excessive: the state has to pay for a thousand things which it would not have to pay if an advanced civil society existed, because citizens would pay for them directly."
Many of America's political elites insist the private sector, our charities or local governments are unable to meet the growing social needs. They insist big government is the only entity capable of meeting the challenge. 
We must not allow them to frame the argument. We must reject their premise. 
Slashing the federal budget is more than just an argument over spending reductions and tax cuts.  The larger, unspoken issue, is smaller government means the return of a civil society less dependent on government.  It means the return to society with a structure more akin to the one that made America great in its earlier, formative years.

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