Why Least Government Isn’t Always Best

Some good news from the environmental front, where good news is rare. For the first time ever, commercial fishing stocks in United States waters are being maintained on a sustainable basis everywhere. That is, the government is controlling how many fish may be taken in order to maintain a continuing supply. If the fishing stock drops too far, fishing is stopped until there are again enough fish to maintain the population. Everybody wins. The fishing trade continues. We consumers are able to buy fish. The normal fish populations are no longer endangered by overfishing.

This is strictly against one of the primary conservative principles, that the least government is best. This principle tells us that the government should not be in the fishing business at all, that this should be left up the “magic of the marketplace”. But the thing that is missing in that formula is something called “the tragedy of the commons”.

The commons was the area of municipal land on which anyone in the village who chose to do so could graze his animals. This works fine until the numbers of animals exceeds the ability of the land to recover. Then, in order to maximize his own benefit, every farmer is compelled to graze more and more animals, until the common is completely destroyed. It’s easy to see how this applies to fishing. Without controls, when every fisherman attends to his own self interest, as in classical market theory, fishing stocks are harvested until there are no more fish. This has happened to a number of great fishing grounds. The fishing industry is destroyed. Everyone loses.

The only way the tragedy of the commons can be avoided when there are too many grazing animals (or fishing businesses) is for the government or some other agency to determine who may use the commons and when. In terms of fishing, the other agency might be an organization the fishermen belong to. This has worked in some places. However, those who do not honor the agency might simply invade the fishing waters and take all the fish for themselves, hurting everyone but themselves and negating the entire purpose of the agency. The agency has no legal powers to prevent this. But the government does.

So it would appear that there are instances where the government must act if the interests of all Americans are to be protected. Are there any other such cases? Lots, but conservatives, against all logic, believe the government should not function this way.

Consider air pollution. If the government does not act to limit air pollution, there is nothing to prevent the air from becoming like it is many places in China. Here’s a picture I took in China five years ago. This is not fog, and it’s even worse in some places.

Air pollution in China

How can such a tragedy be avoided? Only the government has the power to save our air, and only the government has the power to manage a great many things that would otherwise be misused, to everyone’s disadvantage. Yet it is a conservative fundamental that it should not, and a good many Republicans and Tea Party people want to dissolve the Environmental Protection Agency and many others entirely. Obviously, this is not in the nation’s best interest.

I go further in my beliefs about what the government should do. While it is clear that only government action can protect fish stocks and control air pollution, I believe there are many things that the government can do better than private enterprise. More efficiently, with wider protection and benefit. I also believe that the government has a profound responsibility to protect those unfortunate citizens who, through no fault of their own, are unable to provide adequately for themselves. Not to do so is immoral. A society must be judged by how well it takes care of its least fortunate.

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Published in: on 2011/03/31 at 7:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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