Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Local Knowledge, You Goddamn Technocrat

Sometimes I get my hopes up about Matt Yglesias. Here he is, exhibiting an admirable level of cynicism with respect to the staggeringly expensive missile defense system we're building to piss off Russia and defend against Iran's nonexistent nuclear weaponry:
Naturally, though, the exorbitant financial cost of the program counts as a point in its favor. The US would never want to build something cheap, useless, and incredibly damaging to our relationship with Russia. But since the missile defense initiatives are so damn costly, they're also incredibly profitable to the people who build them, and thus to the members of congress who get their campaign contributions and to the think tankers who they support. The best way to kill this initiative would be a scientific breakthrough that allowed its goals to be achieved cheaply and with some efficacy. If that was on hand, diplomatic considerations just might win out.
And then you get to posts like this:
In practice, arguments about federalism are almost universally made opportunistically. People favor devolving power to the states when they think doing so will produce policies they approve of, and people favor concentrating power in Washington when they think doing so will produce policies they approve of. Everyone knows this. And while one might condemn the hypocrisy of it all, this always strikes me as a good thing to be hypocritical about. I don't really have a principled view about the appropriate division of powers between states and the federal government and don't really intend to develop one. The congressional policy being enacted here seems to me to be a good one, so that's good enough for me.

I like Matt so I'll try and limit my ire to the title of the post, but if he wants a principled view I'll give him a principled view. Here it is:

If a function can be performed by a state or local government, it shouldn't be performed by the federal government.

A larger, more powerful government has more corruption, because bribing one official gets you more power. It has less efficiency, because its policies have to be implemented and enforced over a greater number of people in a larger geographic area.

Anyway, it's easy to recite the general arguments for federalism, and liberals who have been around the block have heard them before - and they'll be the first to point out that those arguments were used to defend some vile discriminatory practices that took place in the South. They can be forgiven for questioning the motives of people arguing federalist principles, but that does not render those principles meaningless. I'd argue that fundamental rights to equality under the law are much more necessarily federal than rules governing the nutritional content of school lunches.

The federal government, especially today, has a completely corrupt decision-making process. It is the ultimate sausage factory, and electing Democrats is not going to change that. Matt understands this when it comes to foreign policy, but he maintains a naive optimism that a good idea will stay a good idea after the federal government decides how to implement it - let alone the technocratic belief that if we just come up with The Right Policy we can solve all of our problems. Does he really want the federal government, granter of billions of fattening farm subsidies, making nutrition rules? Here's a clue.

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