Cummins: The Catch Phrases of a Sham Government

September 10, 2015

By Ryan Cummins

My experience on a city council, in business and as a taxpayer tells me to beware when the government action being proposed is “for public safety,” “for the children” or “for economic development.” When you hear those words, grab your wallet and hold close your liberty; there is a hidden agenda.

Another dependable “tell” that your elected representative is gambling with your future is when, in the midst of a budgetary crisis, he proposes incidental cutbacks, such as in office supplies, cell-phone use, take-home cars and the like. You can be sure that, if he even understands your city’s predicament, he has no plan to extricate you. He is bailing with a thimble and reaching for a life vest.

For example, my hometown newspaper the other day carried comments that a councilman was “concerned” about the city budget (we are near bankruptcy) and urges “fiscal responsibility.” So, is my city back on the right track? Getting things straightened out?

Unfortunately not. This fellow had voted yes to every salary ordinance and budget increase for two decades. Fiscal responsibility? He has no earthly idea what it might mean.

So much for holding politicians accountable on a day-to-day basis — that is the job of journalism, or at least it should be. The rest of us need to get to work delineating the principles of sound governance long-term.

To begin with the obvious, voters deserve to know what guides those whom they elect to office, what he or she will do when the time comes to raise a hand yes or no. Otherwise, democracy is a sham exercise. Meaningless are vague references to a “common good,” “Hoosier values” and “working in the best interests of the people.”

The principles I would look for in the position of a particular candidate are these four: limited government, free markets, property rights and individual responsibility. Let me offer my definitions:

  1. Limited government — Holding a government (at any level) to only the protection of life, liberty and property. Stated differently, it means that any government is only legitimate and can only claim to operate at the consent of the governed if they can only legally/ethically/morally do the things that an individual can also do legally/ethically/morally. You have the right to defend and protect your life, liberty and property. You don’t have the right to force someone to pay for your stadium, downtown apartment building, convention center, transportation, recreation or other great idea. Neither does the government possess that right.
  1. Free markets — The free and voluntary exchange between one person or group of persons and another in which our needs will be most efficiently and effectively met.
  1. Property rights — That every person has a fundamental human right, which cannot be legitimately violated by the state, in the fruits of their labor and in themselves as a human being.
  1. Individual responsibility — I am responsible to meet my needs and the needs of all those for whom I voluntarily choose to be responsible. That is my family first and then my neighbors.

Of those principles, the most likely to be violated by those rationales of big government mentioned earlier — children, public safety and economic development — is the last. There is nothing that happens when a person is elected or appointed as a bureaucrat that transforms him or her into an economic-development superhero. It is my view that these persons act only as an agent for the individual citizen to ensure that government operates to protect their life, liberty and property.

When an elected or appointed person goes beyond this effort, then always and everywhere the results are ultimately destructive. Regardless of whether the intentions are honorable or nefarious, jobs are lost, opportunity is reduced, and wealth and property are compromised or destroyed.

Elected persons must understand that every business competes with every other business for the means of production (labor, capital, natural resources) and for customers. Every retail store, every wholesale warehouse, every machine shop, every heavy manufacturer, every service company, in short, everyone competes with everyone.

I own a garden center. I work hard to convince people of the value of landscaping, planting flowers, growing a garden, installing a stone patio, or any other aspect of gardening and landscaping that I sell. I want them to spend all their money on flowers and trees. I don’t want them to buy a $50,000 car. I want them to buy a $1,000 jalopy, just good enough to get them to my store, and spend the other $49,000 on landscaping, preferably with me.

The car dealer is working to get them to do the opposite. I want them to buy the minimum insurance on the jalopy. The insurance agent is trying to sell them full coverage at high limits and to hell with the flowers. I compete with the local manufacturer for competent employees, for available trucks and forklifts, for infrastructure to run a business, for financing and all the other tools of production.

Again, everyone competes with everyone, everywhere, all the time. It is the nature of the market and capitalism and, when allowed to function within a framework of property rights and responsibility, it results in a miracle that provides everything we need more efficiently and effectively than any system ever devised by man. A government that recognizes this fact and operates to facilitate free-market capitalism will accomplish the only thing government can actually do for real, actual economic development.

When local governments engage in a misguided attempt to pick winners in the market, they will always create losers. The interventions take many forms: abatements, subsidies, giveaways, special tax treatment, infrastructure subsidies, direct investment, free land, and on and on. These interventions in the free and voluntary market only distort and limit the choices that would have otherwise been freely made.

A politician or bureaucrat cannot know which business should be located and operating in their city or county. It is extremely difficult and risky for an entrepreneur or investor to know how, where, when and why to open or expand a business — and it’s their money and property at risk. How in the world could politicians and bureaucrats, risking someone else’s money without consequence to their own assets and almost as often without accountability, make such difficult decisions?

Those communities that try will always suffer in a net loss, in reduced opportunities and in faltering prospects. Economists warn us not to be fooled by “the seen,” because in the case of government intervention in the market, it will be the “the unseen” that does the damage — businesses that don’t establish or expand because resources are taken away, jobs that don’t come into being for the same reason, ambitious youth who move to other places to realize their ideas and opportunities, wealth that is never created.

Citizens don’t depend on the mayor or commissioner to find projects in which to invest their dollars. They never do that. When a parking garage, apartment building, convention center, stadium, industrial building is not built, it is not a failure of civic vision. Quite the contrary, it is because citizens, entrepreneurs, investors and businesses have weighed the pros and cons and decided that it isn’t the best use of their resources at the time.

And contrary to what some politicians and economic-development directors tell you, citizens are not in a muddle as to what to do with their personal property. They are actively and continuously deciding to invest it, to build with it, to start or expand businesses and residences in ways that the experts and politicians may disapprove. When it comes to economic-development planning, the only real question, the only real debate, is who’s doing the planning and with whose property.

Limited government, free markets, property rights, individual responsibility, freedom and liberty stand with the individual citizen when such decisions are made. It needs to be kept that way.

Maj. Ryan Cummins, an adjunct scholar, is the owner of a family business and past chairman of the appropriations committee of the Terre Haute Common Council.

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