Pushing Big Government Through the Gap

Enemies of limited government are an energetic, persistent bunch, and one of their most effective strategies to aggrandize state power is what I call "gapism." Here's how it works.

Begin by uncovering some "gap" between haves and have-nots. Contemporary examples include differences in health care quality, life expectancy, educational attainment, home ownership, obesity, internet access, credit card fees, fresh produce in supermarkets, superior day care, salt and trans fat consumption, university faculty appointments, visits to national parks, corporate salaries, illegitimacy, home libraries, high school dropout rates, stock ownership, and countless other conditions.

These discrepancies automatically become "a troubling problem." That the have-nots may disdain what the haves possess or may be satisfied with their current situation is irrelevant. It is just blithely assumed, for example, that obese poor people crave thinness and will happily shun junk food and exercise more if these options were made more available. Who can possibly reject being healthy, wealthy, and wise? In other words, gaps are unnatural and correctable.

It is just a baby step to convert "a problem" into "a problem requiring a government solution." After all, since the sufferer still suffers, he or she is assumed to have exhausted personal remedies, so only the government, and especially Washington, can provide a rescue. If deprived people are disproportionately unable to afford a private home, and since a private home is so desirable, shouldn't government supply the mortgage? Isn't that what government is all about -- providing what people cannot supply for themselves?

The final touch in this game entails invoking impending doom coupled with moral imperatives. Differences in male/female earnings, a readily explainable condition that has existed for eons, suddenly becomes "a crisis" that threatens America's historic commitment to equality (note how sex-related gaps in longevity are not yet "troubling"). With such overheated (and deceptive) rhetoric in place, how could any American, erstwhile conservatives included, fail to answer the call "to close the gap"? We have thus grown addicted to countless erstwhile Marshall Plans, Manhattan Projects, Wars on This and That, and similar crusades of the day. Fulminating about a "troubling gap" is also wonderful campaign rhetoric. Ironically, gaps multiply with prosperity; if one needs a model of a gap-free society, just return to the Stone Age. 

To illustrate this pattern, consider one newly-uncovered gap. A May 27, 2010 Wall Street Journal Article (D3) announces "Report Finds a Gap Persists in Swimming." It explains that while 40% of Caucasians have little or no swimming ability, for African-Americans, the figure is 70%. This translates into death -- according the to the Center for Disease Control, between 2000 and 2006, 14-year-old blacks were 3.1 times more likely than whites of that age to drown. The alleged culprit is the recent economic slowdown that has brought the closing of community pools, less swimming instruction, and the reduction of public safety budgets. Still, interviews with low-income parents reveal that the greatest impediment to learning to swim is parental refusal to let their children near water, even if the lessons were free.

What is revealing about this Wall Street Journal article is that no compelling reason exists to put these data in a gap context, let alone a racial or socioeconomic one. The article could just tell how fewer and fewer Americans in general can swim and how this is particularly prevalent among, say, urban residents, or those inclined toward non-water sports. Nor is parental aversion to being near water taken seriously. But adding the race and low income slant adds urgency since, as every egalitarian will tell you, suffering is horrific only if the certifiably disadvantaged suffer most. That a "conservative" paper has so casually embraced gapism confirms just how deeply the "close the gap" mentality has penetrated our thinking.             

If the newfound swimming gap joins all the other alarming and troubling have/have not discrepancies, escalating and aggressive state intervention is inevitable. A recent New York state law to compensate for parental neglect may foretell the future. Now any pool built or significantly renovated since 2006 (1) must have an alarm that sounds when a child enters the pool, (2) the alarm must be audible at both the pool and a second location, and (3) an outdoor residential pool is required to have a surrounding barrier that is a minimum of four feet high that limits access. This law regarding private pools is to be enforced by the police ("State Law helps keep kids safe with sound," Daily News, May 31, 2010, 4).

The law will hardly close gaps since implementation is a nightmare, but no matter for the relentless gap-closers (a local NYC pool supplier estimates that only 15%-30% of local residents are in compliance). The next installment may include armies of pool inspectors; demands that low- income pool owners have access to "affordable security" financed with a special tax on privileged country clubs; expensive, high-tech, child-proof barrier locks; and, eventually, community outrage when vandalized elaborate security devices and barriers are not replaced weekly so as to protect miscreants sneaking into their neighbors' backyard pools. And rest assured that just as in education, as racial disparities become publicized, task forces will issue reports on this "crisis" and "the drowning gap." Class action lawsuits over faulty alarms and shoddy barriers are guaranteed. In a nutshell, thanks to inequality, 180,000 years of human evolution where children who lived near water somehow learned to swim (or else) now evolves into state-supervised protection against individual stupidity.     

Gapism is a brilliant political strategy to destroy limited government. Handy statistics are readily accessible, and armchair computers analysts can achieve egalitarian social justice without leaving home. Public employee unions are, needless to say, hardly disinterested bystanders.

But of the utmost importance for foes of limited government, nearly all of today's gaps defy cheap cures, and so most will soon metastasize into a permanent bureaucratic colossus. Consider the school lunch program, an idea originally targeting the hungry poor but now expanding at a time of soaring childhood obesity. According to the Department of Agriculture that administers the program, the proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches nationally has gone from 15.1% in 1969 to 58.8% in 2007. The free breakfast program is similarly exploding, along with waistlines. Closing gaps is lifetime bureaucratic employment.

Slaying this egalitarian beast requires killing horrific ideas. We must begin by insisting that "a difference between the have's and the have-nots" is undoubtedly an eternal human condition, not necessarily a predicament automatically demanding Washington's intercession. It exists by definition -- if everybody owns a TV, the haves will have better ones. Making a condition "a troubling problem" therefore faces a heavy burden of proof, not something asserted axiomatically. Second, even "a problem" that might be solved by government may not find the most cost-effective pathway in government. If Michelle Obama wants to fight obesity, she can certainly recommend successful for-profit weight loss clinics or free pamphlets.

Third, overcoming inequality is often a hopeless battle against human nature. In the final analysis, even the toughest private pool regulations cannot reverse chronic parental ineptitude. Pool alarms may even encourage a false sense of security. Humans are humans. Banning "unhealthy" salt to protect the vulnerable will bring a restaurant policy of BYOS -- Bring Your Own Salt. 

Finally, people differ in what they want, and these differences should be respected. Not everyone prefers swimming to basketball or wants to attend college or even to be thin. Freedom of choice applies even if the results exacerbate allegedly harmful gaps. At some point, a proliferating regulatory code merely infantilizes citizens.

In 1840 in his Democracy in America II, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that the centralized egalitarian state would reduce a self-governing people "to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd." Overcoming gaps is the perfect way to create this flock. Baa...baa.
Enemies of limited government are an energetic, persistent bunch, and one of their most effective strategies to aggrandize state power is what I call "gapism." Here's how it works.

Begin by uncovering some "gap" between haves and have-nots. Contemporary examples include differences in health care quality, life expectancy, educational attainment, home ownership, obesity, internet access, credit card fees, fresh produce in supermarkets, superior day care, salt and trans fat consumption, university faculty appointments, visits to national parks, corporate salaries, illegitimacy, home libraries, high school dropout rates, stock ownership, and countless other conditions.

These discrepancies automatically become "a troubling problem." That the have-nots may disdain what the haves possess or may be satisfied with their current situation is irrelevant. It is just blithely assumed, for example, that obese poor people crave thinness and will happily shun junk food and exercise more if these options were made more available. Who can possibly reject being healthy, wealthy, and wise? In other words, gaps are unnatural and correctable.

It is just a baby step to convert "a problem" into "a problem requiring a government solution." After all, since the sufferer still suffers, he or she is assumed to have exhausted personal remedies, so only the government, and especially Washington, can provide a rescue. If deprived people are disproportionately unable to afford a private home, and since a private home is so desirable, shouldn't government supply the mortgage? Isn't that what government is all about -- providing what people cannot supply for themselves?

The final touch in this game entails invoking impending doom coupled with moral imperatives. Differences in male/female earnings, a readily explainable condition that has existed for eons, suddenly becomes "a crisis" that threatens America's historic commitment to equality (note how sex-related gaps in longevity are not yet "troubling"). With such overheated (and deceptive) rhetoric in place, how could any American, erstwhile conservatives included, fail to answer the call "to close the gap"? We have thus grown addicted to countless erstwhile Marshall Plans, Manhattan Projects, Wars on This and That, and similar crusades of the day. Fulminating about a "troubling gap" is also wonderful campaign rhetoric. Ironically, gaps multiply with prosperity; if one needs a model of a gap-free society, just return to the Stone Age. 

To illustrate this pattern, consider one newly-uncovered gap. A May 27, 2010 Wall Street Journal Article (D3) announces "Report Finds a Gap Persists in Swimming." It explains that while 40% of Caucasians have little or no swimming ability, for African-Americans, the figure is 70%. This translates into death -- according the to the Center for Disease Control, between 2000 and 2006, 14-year-old blacks were 3.1 times more likely than whites of that age to drown. The alleged culprit is the recent economic slowdown that has brought the closing of community pools, less swimming instruction, and the reduction of public safety budgets. Still, interviews with low-income parents reveal that the greatest impediment to learning to swim is parental refusal to let their children near water, even if the lessons were free.

What is revealing about this Wall Street Journal article is that no compelling reason exists to put these data in a gap context, let alone a racial or socioeconomic one. The article could just tell how fewer and fewer Americans in general can swim and how this is particularly prevalent among, say, urban residents, or those inclined toward non-water sports. Nor is parental aversion to being near water taken seriously. But adding the race and low income slant adds urgency since, as every egalitarian will tell you, suffering is horrific only if the certifiably disadvantaged suffer most. That a "conservative" paper has so casually embraced gapism confirms just how deeply the "close the gap" mentality has penetrated our thinking.             

If the newfound swimming gap joins all the other alarming and troubling have/have not discrepancies, escalating and aggressive state intervention is inevitable. A recent New York state law to compensate for parental neglect may foretell the future. Now any pool built or significantly renovated since 2006 (1) must have an alarm that sounds when a child enters the pool, (2) the alarm must be audible at both the pool and a second location, and (3) an outdoor residential pool is required to have a surrounding barrier that is a minimum of four feet high that limits access. This law regarding private pools is to be enforced by the police ("State Law helps keep kids safe with sound," Daily News, May 31, 2010, 4).

The law will hardly close gaps since implementation is a nightmare, but no matter for the relentless gap-closers (a local NYC pool supplier estimates that only 15%-30% of local residents are in compliance). The next installment may include armies of pool inspectors; demands that low- income pool owners have access to "affordable security" financed with a special tax on privileged country clubs; expensive, high-tech, child-proof barrier locks; and, eventually, community outrage when vandalized elaborate security devices and barriers are not replaced weekly so as to protect miscreants sneaking into their neighbors' backyard pools. And rest assured that just as in education, as racial disparities become publicized, task forces will issue reports on this "crisis" and "the drowning gap." Class action lawsuits over faulty alarms and shoddy barriers are guaranteed. In a nutshell, thanks to inequality, 180,000 years of human evolution where children who lived near water somehow learned to swim (or else) now evolves into state-supervised protection against individual stupidity.     

Gapism is a brilliant political strategy to destroy limited government. Handy statistics are readily accessible, and armchair computers analysts can achieve egalitarian social justice without leaving home. Public employee unions are, needless to say, hardly disinterested bystanders.

But of the utmost importance for foes of limited government, nearly all of today's gaps defy cheap cures, and so most will soon metastasize into a permanent bureaucratic colossus. Consider the school lunch program, an idea originally targeting the hungry poor but now expanding at a time of soaring childhood obesity. According to the Department of Agriculture that administers the program, the proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches nationally has gone from 15.1% in 1969 to 58.8% in 2007. The free breakfast program is similarly exploding, along with waistlines. Closing gaps is lifetime bureaucratic employment.

Slaying this egalitarian beast requires killing horrific ideas. We must begin by insisting that "a difference between the have's and the have-nots" is undoubtedly an eternal human condition, not necessarily a predicament automatically demanding Washington's intercession. It exists by definition -- if everybody owns a TV, the haves will have better ones. Making a condition "a troubling problem" therefore faces a heavy burden of proof, not something asserted axiomatically. Second, even "a problem" that might be solved by government may not find the most cost-effective pathway in government. If Michelle Obama wants to fight obesity, she can certainly recommend successful for-profit weight loss clinics or free pamphlets.

Third, overcoming inequality is often a hopeless battle against human nature. In the final analysis, even the toughest private pool regulations cannot reverse chronic parental ineptitude. Pool alarms may even encourage a false sense of security. Humans are humans. Banning "unhealthy" salt to protect the vulnerable will bring a restaurant policy of BYOS -- Bring Your Own Salt. 

Finally, people differ in what they want, and these differences should be respected. Not everyone prefers swimming to basketball or wants to attend college or even to be thin. Freedom of choice applies even if the results exacerbate allegedly harmful gaps. At some point, a proliferating regulatory code merely infantilizes citizens.

In 1840 in his Democracy in America II, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that the centralized egalitarian state would reduce a self-governing people "to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd." Overcoming gaps is the perfect way to create this flock. Baa...baa.