Recycling

A comment I posted at Alas*:

The president leads the employees of the executive branch of the government. To say that he leads the citizens of the US in general suggests a deeply flawed view of the proper role of government in our lives.

And one I posted over at Megan McArdle's blog, in response to the italicized text (by commenter Chet):

There's a space for a discussion about whether a given function is so necessary we can't trust it to the free market (like basic mail service to rural areas)...

No there isn't. We entrust to the free market any number of things that are more important than mail service to rural areas. For example, the production of food, clothing, automobiles, soap, computers, and a great many other things. The criterion is not importance (indeed, history suggests that food production is too important to be entrusted to the government), but whether something is more vulnerable to market failure than to government failure.

Actually, rural mail delivery is a prime example of something that should not be subsidized by the government. If you want to live out in the middle of nowhere, you should pay the associated costs, including the full cost of mail delivery. If you don't want to pay for mail delivery, you can always rent a post office box in the nearest town and pick up your mail when you go shopping. If neither of these options is acceptable, maybe you should move closer to town.

When people are able to offload the costs of their choices onto others, this is called an externality. While most people associate externalities with market failure, the externality created by the USPS's universal service guarantee is an example of government failure; a private mail delivery service would not be vulnerable to this inefficiency.

One addition: I wonder how much overlap there is between those who decry the evil and wastefulness of suburban sprawl and those who insist, when the topic of a free market in phone service or mail delivery comes up, that it's absolutely essential that the government subsidize rural sprawl.

*In the past, I've recommended Alas due to the fact that Ampersand is one of the more reasonable and thoughtful lefties out there. Unfortunately, over the past year or two, he has both cut back on his own blogging and made some exceptionally poor choices in co-bloggers, which has greatly diminished the average quality of posts on Alas. As a result, I can no longer recommend Alas, but Blog by Barry, which consists of cross-posts of all of Ampersand's Alas posts and has a more liberal comment moderation policy, looks promising.

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Article 1 Section 8

of the Constitution authorizes Congress to raise funds "To establish Post Offices and Post roads"

And the Sixteenth Amendment

And the Sixteenth Amendment authorizes the federal government to levy a tax against income from whatever source derived. We'd still be better off if they didn't.

President as "leader"

The president leads the employees of the executive branch of the government. To say that he leads the citizens of the US in general suggests a deeply flawed view of the proper role of government in our lives.

What does it mean for the President to "lead"?

We are each responsible for our own actions. That said, I don't begrudge anyone the option of exercising that responsibility by choosing to follow someone else, at least provisionally. But what do we want a President do relative to those who would choose to follow him voluntarily (not professionally)? Should he actively discourage followers? Should he be passive? Should he actively solicit them? And what limits should a President observe on soliciting followers?

Libertarians rightly focus on the harm of physical coercion. They focus less attention on other means of behavior modification, arguing that people who are motivated by mere words, symbols and circumstances are exercising their free will. So, for example, some people conclude that the behavior exhibited by guards in Guantanamo was not evidence of coercion by government-created circumstance – after all, no one had put a gun to the guards’ heads, right? – but rather demonstrated the existence of “a few bad apples” freely choosing to behave that way.

Social science research calls this into question, demonstrating how people’s behaviors can be manipulated by manipulating circumstance. Presidents wield power by wielding symbols and circumstances as well as armies. Given this, which is preferable: a President who drafts us into war, or a President who deceives and manipulates us into war? If we’re going to end up in the same place either way, there is at least something honest about the exercise of raw physical force.

Yet is leadership of a large organization even possible without manipulating people? The best example of the opposite that comes to mind, if vaguely, was Paul Atreides from Dune. He demonstrated leadership to the people of Dune in the least charismatic manner possible: He could not claim that he shared the ethnicity, religion, social class or lifestyle of the people of Dune. Nor did he offer an especially rosy image of the future. Rather, he made rationalistic appeals to their self-interest: we’re all in a bad spot, but I have an idea for making the best of it. This kind of leadership appealed to me. But in time, the people could not follow him simply as a competent leader; they came to regard him as a messiah (and, ok, in the context of the book you couldn’t really blame them).

In contrast to Paul Atreides, I sense that most (all?) actual political leaders exert leadership by appealing to ethnicity, religion, social class, lifestyle, etc. – stuff that has nothing to do with the challenges at hand. This causes me to suspect that this kind of BS is not BS, but actually a necessary component of leadership.

This is a long ‘way around to saying that, yeah, maybe a President really must also serve as a leader of the citizens, at least provisionally. True, the Constitution does not require it. But there may be more in heav’n and earth than are dreamt of in your Constitution.