Mis­us­ing knowl­edge to ex­pand gov­ern­ment

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Knowl­edge is be­com­ing more spe­cial­ized and more dis­persed, while gov­ern­ment power is be­com­ing more con­cen­trated,” writes econ­o­mist Arnold Kling in his new book, “Unchecked and Un­bal­anced.” “This dis­crep­ancy cre­ates the po­ten­tial for gov­ern­ment to be­come in­creas­ingly er­ratic and, as a re­sult, less sat­is­fy­ing to in­di­vid­u­als.”

“Less sat­is­fy­ing to in­di­vid­u­als” is a mild way to put it. In a re­cent An­nen­berg fo­cus group, poll­ster Peter Hart asked Philadel­phia sub­ur­ban­ites to write the name that came to mind when they thought of Congress. A re­tired auto ex­ec­u­tive and 2008 Obama voter wrote, “Satan.” When asked why, he said, “Be­cause I wasn’t sure of the cor­rect spell­ing of ‘Beelze­bub.’”

Mr. Kling’s point is that such dis­en­chant­ment is in­evitable when gov­ern­ment of­fice­hold­ers make sweep­ing de­ci­sions about mat­ters on which they lack, and only a few spe­cial­ists have, detailed knowl­edge. Which is what Congress and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion have been busy do­ing th­ese past 11 months.

Con­sider the 2,000-plus-page health care leg­is­la­tion now be­fore the Se­nate. There is co­her­ent de­bate on abor­tion cov­er­age be­cause it’s a dis­crete is­sue eas­ily iso­lated from the rest of the bill that raises con­cerns among peo­ple with con­flict­ing strong moral be­liefs.

But any abor­tion pro­vi­sion would have less ef­fect on real life than dozens of other pro­vi­sions in the bill. The Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, draw­ing on spe­cial­ist knowl­edge, tells us the Se­nate bill would re­sult in 10 mil­lion peo­ple los­ing em­ployer-pro­vided in­sur­ance and in­creased pre­mi­ums for buy­ers

On the is­sue of car­bon emis­sions, the e-mails hacked from Bri­tain’s Cli­mate Re­search Unit show even lead­ing spe­cial­ists in cli­mate re­search have been busy ma­nip­u­lat­ing data and sup­press­ing al­ter­na­tive views in pur­suit of po­lit­i­cal ends. Their goal, and that of the Democrats back­ing cap-and-trade leg­is­la­tion, is gov­ern­ment con­trol over en­ergy pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion es­sen­tial to all of the econ­omy.

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec- rule of law.

His­tory pro­vides co­pi­ous ev­i­dence that this con­vic­tion is mis­taken. Writ­ing in Pol­icy Re­view, economists Paul Gre­gory and Kate Zhou com­pare the suc­cess of mar­ket re­forms in China and their fail­ure in Rus­sia. They point out that re­form in China was bot­tom-up: Peas­ants started pro­duc­ing food for pri­vate sale and, as mar­kets thrived, Com­mu­nist leader Deng Xiaop­ing winked at their rule-break­ing and changed the are pre­par­ing to game the new sys­tems. Far from ban­ish­ing lob­by­ists from Wash­ing­ton, Barack Obama has pro­vided them with enor­mous amounts of new busi­ness.

An al­ter­na­tive ap­proach was taken in Ge­orge W. Bush’s ma­jor do­mes­tic leg­is­la­tion. Tax cuts, the ed­u­ca­tion ac­count­abil­ity bill and the Medi­care pre­scrip­tion drug ben­e­fit law opened up ar­eas where mar­kets and in­cen­tives could op­er­ate. Costs came in lower and rev­enues higher than pro­jected. An econ­omy stalled by re­ces­sion proved ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing new jobs without di­rec­tion from cen­tral plan­ners.

Polls have shown that in the last 11 months, as Amer­i­cans have started to think hard about Demo­cratic pro­pos­als, they have be­come less con­fi­dent in gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to di­rect so­ci­ety. Un­der­ly­ing the an­gry re­sponses in fo­cus groups and tea par­ties is an ap­pre­ci­a­tion that prob­lems can best be ad­dressed by widely dis­persed peo­ple with spe­cial­ized knowl­edge op­er­at­ing in a pre­dictable frame­work. Not by cen­tral plan­ners act­ing in ig­no­rance of or by ma­nip­u­lat­ing spe­cial­ized knowl­edge.

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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