Bohanon: In Praise of Boring Government

May 6, 2013

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

A conservative Republican governor has super majorities in both branches of the legislature. One might suspect such one-party government will lead to major changes in public policy, but this did not happen in 2013 in Indiana.

When out of power, many conservatives, progressives and libertarians (me included) love to wax on how they would radically restructure public policies — remember the call for property-tax abolition? When one party is in control of a state, however, radical changes are limited by the same political forces and interests that drive policy outcomes in a two-party state.

I know. I grew up in Oklahoma, where the Democratic primary election determined who occupied most state and local offices from statehood until the mid-1960s. Yet this did not preclude vigorous competition between various factions of the Democratic Party over the major issues of the day. I suspect if Republican hegemony is to continue in Indiana, Republican factions will be much more pronounced and visible.

Consider the tax modifications from the session: a 5 percent income-rate reduction phased in over three years, the elimination of the inheritance tax and reductions in other taxes. These are tweaks to an existing structure rather than a structural change, and this absence of structural change is irritating a lot of Indiana pundits.

Many with a conservative or libertarian bent find this state of affairs to be disappointing. Why don’t we abolish the state income tax or adopt universal school vouchers? If big changes don’t happen now, when are they supposed to happen? It is interesting that those with a more leftward bent are also complaining — what about a pre-kindergarten mandate? What about mass transit for Indy?

Let me offer an alternative vision of government: First, do no harm. By this reckoning, the whole idea of transformative policy agendas are misguided. Rather, the first order of government is to maintain institutional stability. Changes in government policies should be necessary, measured and tested. They should be deliberate — not the result of passions of the moment or emotional diatribes of the day.

In this vision, the role of government is limited, enumerated and well-understood. State government is to administer justice, ensure that state schools and universities are operating, maintain state roads and other necessary state-level infrastructure, and provide certain well-defined social services. Major expansions (or for that matter contractions) of these roles are to be considered with skepticism. The legislature’s job is to authorize the funding of these endeavors and tweak the system at the margins by passing necessary and appropriate legislation. The governor’s job is to arbitrate conflicts between legislative factions and oversee the actual administration of the government’s work.

The political problem with this view of government is that it is boring. If the legislature and governor actually do their work, there are no major newspaper headlines. There is no grand vision of what society should become. This is because in a society of free and responsible individuals, no common vision is necessary, required or especially desired. Rather, each individual in voluntary associations with others charts his personal vision and contributes to the larger but limited common vision. Social vision does not come from Indianapolis, because state government is not society. It is an essential and important tool for society, but it is first and foremost subordinate to society.

A novel idea? Not really; our third president, Thomas Jefferson, articulated it much better than I can in his first inaugural speech:

“A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Ball State University.

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