Road Rage and the G20

Anti-government rhetoric is all the rage these days. And "rage" is the operative word here. Small-government enthusiasts are like the drivers of Hummers incensed at all the difficulties they encounter on the roadway - pesky speed limits, red lights, construction-related delays. Fuming at these restrictions on their liberty, they suddenly have a profanity-laced meltdown and take it out on those around them.

Michele Bachmann (R-Mars), who represents the Palin constituency inside Congress, regularly flies into anti-government rages. "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back," she told a Minnesota radio program last year. "Thomas Jefferson told us 'having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,' and the people - we the people - are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country."

Florida senatorial candidate Marco Rubio has gotten a lot of mileage out of his anti-government tirades. The Obama administration is trying to create "a dependency society," he has said. But of course now he's begging the federal government for assistance in fighting the oil spill.

Ironies abound. These people are in government. I propose we come up with a new term: self-hating politicians. If they hate government so much, the Bachmanns and Rubios of the world should simply resign and get jobs in the private sector. The slogan for the 2010 elections should be: No More Self-Hating Politicians!

Here's the more depressing irony: Right now we need more government, not less. We need sustained government investment in public works. We need the government to focus on sustainable energy and the reduction of carbon emissions. We need assertive diplomacy from the U.S. government in global affairs. The small-government cabal has gotten everything turned around. The government isn't intervening in the economy and suppressing liberty. The government creates the conditions within which liberty can thrive.

Let's go back to the traffic metaphor for a moment. I recently came across an interesting article in The Washington Post that brought together anti-government sentiment and road rage. Complaints have been piling up in Washington over a particular stretch of roadway heading out of the District. After miles of delays on New York Avenue, drivers finally hit a green light at Bladensburg Road and start to accelerate to get out of town. Problem is, 'there's a speed limit on that stretch of highway and speed cameras have been issuing citations.

"What motorists think is happening at this [camera] site is a violation of their sense or understanding of freedom," Isaac Kramnick, professor of government at Cornell University, related to me in a corrected version of a quote he gave the Post. "What they are thinking is that they've come all this way through traffic and now the government is stepping in with a ticket at this crucial moment of freedom."

But how soon the freedom-loving motorists forget! Actually, the government stepped in a long time ago to build and maintain the road, set up the traffic light, establish the rules of traffic safety, and police those rules. Perhaps freedom of a sort existed when New York Avenue was marshy land and 18th-century horseback riders could gallop as fast as they pleased through the mud and muck. Since then, the government has created the conditions under which freedom (to drive) can exist in the first place.

We might quibble about this or that traffic rule. After all, we live in a democracy. But we must recognize that the traffic system saves us from the law of the jungle - might makes right - and tames the savage beast behind the steering wheel. Only because of government-sanctioned rules of the road can the Hummer lie down with the Honda. Government is the real invisible hand here, so invisible that we all forget its role in sustaining commerce, creating jobs, and establishing fair rules.

The same principles apply globally. The modest success of the traffic system gives hope that a fair and equitable global order is possible. If anarchic individuals can behave themselves on the roadway, so that road rage is the exception rather than the rule, perhaps states too can obey an international system of rules and regulations and thereby avoid the state of nature that Hobbes warned of: the war of all against all. Rules and regulations at an international level ideally prevent the strong (states, corporations) from preying on the weak (the rest of us).

Still, of course, we live by Hummer rules. The United States wages war; BP makes messes. But slowly - and I'm talking the long term here - we are coming up with rules that restrict the liberty of the powerful to guarantee security and justice for all.

Consider the recent Group of 20 (G20) meeting in Toronto. Yes, there are many reasons to be critical of the G20. It doesn't represent the poorest third of the world's population. It seems to pay more attention to the needs of the rich. It is, like so much else, an imperfect institution.

But the G20 can also help establish the rules that can rein in the anarchy of the market. For instance, the G20 has been considering two key reforms on tax havens and a global transactions tax. At a time of tight budgets, governments should be eager to crack down on corporations and individuals that shirk their taxes by funneling their money into offshore havens. The G20 has supported a "name and shame" campaign against financial centers that don't comply with international standards. But some smaller countries like Luxembourg are reluctant to submit to a new regime of transparency unless big players like the United States - with dodgy areas like Delaware and the Virgin Islands - also play by the rules.

In Toronto last week, the G20 wrestled with a global transactions tax that could raise hundreds of billions of dollars from the people who can most afford to give. But the Canadian government led the opposition to the measure, and it was postponed until the next meeting in November in South Korea. The failure of this measure has revealed the problems with consensus rule in such a diverse forum.

"The bottom line," Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Didier Jacobs points out in Our Global Senate and Its Flaws, "is that one-vote filibusters would be a bad idea for the U.S. government, and are likewise a bad idea for our global government. As the importance of global problems requiring global solutions grows, majority voting will eventually become necessary to advance the economic reforms we so desperately need."

Anti-government sentiment has also prevented the G20 from encouraging the kind of public spending the world needs at the moment to pull us out of the current recession. European governments are focusing on deficit cuts. The Obama administration is rightly urging more stimulus spending, but has been reluctant to spend the political capital at home to overcome its small-government critics. We are on the verge of a "third depression," argues economist Paul Krugman in a widely read opinion piece on Sunday, because of "the victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis, whose main tenet is that imposing suffering on other people is how you show leadership in tough times."

The president has challenged the anti-government rhetoric that has brought us to this stalemate both domestically and internationally. "When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us," President Obama said last month in a commencement speech in Michigan. "Government is the roads we drive on and the speed limits that keep us safe."

In these tough times, we need leadership that can reveal the invisible hand of government and remind the public that government is the instrument by which we the people regulate ourselves. Without government, after all, it's a Hummer world out there.

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