Against Big-Government Conservatism
Samuel R. Staley argues for a permanent revolving-loan bank (“The Infrastructure Bank We Need,” December 31). Staley conditions his proposal on the bank’s being “properly designed and constrained,” but he ignores the political process that would inevitably distort his ideal design as well as its operation. He also glosses over the most telling point against his proposal: state and local authorities “often preferring to wait for taxpayer-funded grants to shore up dilapidated or outmoded facilities.” Yes, waiting for the federal cornucopia to start gushing has been a substantial contributing cause to the deterioration of state and local infrastructure. But Staley’s bank would just be an alternative way of spending federal dollars on local projects. I should not be forced to subsidize infrastructure in any state other than my own.
Robert D. Atkinson (“Toward a National Productivity Strategy,” December 31) advocates “smart government” intervention in the economy to raise productivity. “Smart government” is a chimera. One of Atkinson’s premises is that “new research suggests.” When research merely “suggests,” one should wait for research to prove. He goes on to outline “smart government policies” that will increase productivity. He, too, envisions a new bureaucracy.
Conservatives should imagine what these new federal bureaucracies might do in the hands of a future administration. How could their “smart” and “well designed” and “constrained” policies (if we assume these could even exist) be shifted to serve different political ends?
These authors take for granted the unlimited power over the economy that the federal government arrogated to itself in the past. They just want to use it smarter. The incoming Trump administration so far seems to feel the same way. However, the election of 2016 shows that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. That includes the constitutional status quo.
Samuel R. Staley responds: John Krill raises a valid concern. An infrastructure bank does have the potential to be hijacked for political ends, which is why conservatives should insist a bank use market-tested loan criteria. If the bank is set up as a revolving-loan fund, where the funds are repaid by the borrowers (as in the private sector), then the potential scope for political manipulation is smaller compared with the current approach, in which most federal funds are raised through taxes and allocated as grants or government-to-government transfers without any market-based performance criteria. But this is a flaw of the current system. The criteria I outline for an infrastructure bank build in more safeguards than that system. The criteria would also require a much greater level of accountability and transparency than the current system.
Robert D. Atkinson responds: I want to thank Mr. Krill for his letter. Mr. Krill seems to have a high level of faith in economic research, expecting “proof,” something possible in physics, not in economics. The scholarly studies I cite are as solid as any in economic research. If he thinks we should wait for incontrovertible proof before acting, where is the proof that most government action is harmful? Was the federal government “stupid” when it supported research that led to the Internet, GPS, magnetic-resonance imaging, etc.? While Donald Trump won the primary and the general election for a variety of reasons, one appears to be that he is a pragmatic conservative, not an ideological one who holds that all government is bad. I fear that Mr. Krill worries so much about the government’s doing something wrong that he would ensure that it is prevented from doing good. Instead of railing against government’s doing anything at all, conservatives should make sure limited government bureaucracies and programs are designed and executed well. Or do they have scholarly proof that this is impossible?