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Do We Really Want Less Government?

Last year I found myself in a debate with a State Legislator before a group of college students. There was no announced subject, but our discussion shortly became my rebuttal to his opening declaration that “we all know we need less government, less regulation, and less restrictions on our lives. That’s the American way.“

I did, and do, respect both the speaker and the opinion, so it was not easy for me to say the conclusion, so sincerely felt by this fellow traveler, was clearly wrong. Yet at the same time my personal experience caused me to question.

I have drafted subdivision, condominium, and townhouse regulations. I have worried with enforcing them, and I have litigated poorly written (and well –written) documents. The greatest misery I have seen in the business of housing control is where people live close together with poor rules, or rules that are not observed. For instance, I have seen townhouses without specific designations of responsibility for roof maintenance. When unit 2 leaked, but the leak was located in the roof of unit 4, and the owner of unit 4 had no means or desire to fix the leak, unit 2 continued to leak. That’s miserable.

The more I experience condominiums the more I believe there are some people who simply ought to find another place to live, where they don’t have to live close to other people. I also find that those who live in condominiums need, and want, more and more specific rules, not only about their rights, but about permissible conduct, and about their mutual responsibilities. In general, I find that the closer people live together, the more they get along better if they have some pretty specific delineations between them about what to expect from each other.

That observation is not all that different from the rights our parents needed when they lived more distant from each other than we live today. They had no condominiums. But even they had their rules. Not all of them were written. Courtesy and fair play sometimes had more to do with the way they treated each other than written rules, but, amorphous as those concepts can be, they caused pain when someone did not know the same rules, or didn’t observe them.

The lesson for me is that on a small level, the closer people live together in the community, the more they need mutual respect. But even mutual respect does not always get the roof fixed. Where complicated relationships exist one cannot always define the answer by the concept of courtesy or fairness. Where those qualities are not enough, there are rules and courts.

How different is that from government? Haven’t we proven that there are systems so complicated that some will take total advantage if there are no rules? Who can deny the result, or the cause, when we extinguish the rules that previously applied to financial systems? We withdraw rules for the energy industry and immediately experience rolling blackouts in parts of the country where previously there was plenty of energy. What happens to your feeling of comfort when someone convinces us, or some special interest persuades the legislative body, that deregulation of the food and drug industry, or the professions, or insurance is essential to the American way?

This is not the place for politics, and I’m not smart enough to have the answers. But I suspect the answers are not found in a simple dogma that embraces deregulation and at the same time derides all forms of control. Clear, fair rules about very many things may be the only way a complicated, relationship society can exist. If those rules don’t come from all of us, acting together through government, then where should they come from?

The next time someone says “ I’m for less government”, don’t we have to wonder just what that means? Less roads? Less military? Exactly what is it they want less of?

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