Friday, November 20, 2015

The Dangers of Weak Government

One week ago, the world was shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Paris.  Relatively few took notice of similar attacks in Syria, Iraq, and Beirut.  Such attacks have become, sadly de-riguer in the Middle East.  But we Americans respond more readily to attacks in Europe because, frankly, they are seen as more “like us.”

Most knew, even before it was officially announced, that Islamic extremists were behind the attacks in Paris.  As the details about the terrorists began to emerge, it became clear that most had become radicalized while residents of the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium – France’s next door neighbor.  More about Belgium in a moment.

Here in America, there is constant talk of reducing the size of Local, State, and especially Federal governments – most of it coming from self-acknowledged members of the “tea party”.  Much of this is presented under the guise of efficiency and getting the most bang out of every taxpayer dollar – certainly laudable goals.  But what the tea-partiers really want is weak government, because of their 18th Century view that the best government is that which governs least – a view which, at best, must be taken with many grains of salt.  Franklin Roosevelt turned the idea on its head when he pointed out that the conservative mantra really meant “that government is best which is most indifferent to mankind”.  The tea party views government of all kinds as part of the “beast.”  Hence their phrase “starve the beast.”

Contrary to popular belief, the march toward deregulation did not begin with President Reagan, but with President Carter, who signed legislation deregulating theairline industry.  How has that worked out for airlines and airports in the United States?  One need only travel through London’sHeathrow and fly on British Airways and then compare Chicago’s O’Hare airportand service on any domestic carrier for an answer.  The deregulation of the financial sector – in particular the repeal of Glass-Steagall, constituted the primary cause of theMortgage Meltdown of 2007 and Great Recession that followed. 

But the biggest danger of weak government is not that the trains might not run on time, or even terrorism.  It is the inevitable backlash when weak government fails.  History is replete with examples of how weak, ineffective government led to disaster, and, ultimately, tyranny.  

In the 1920s, Germany’s Weimar government was so ineffective it couldn’t control the value of its currency, resulting in hyper-inflation.  I vividly recall how my piano teacher recounted how his teacher, Artur Schnabel, would only accept cash-payment after performances in Germany during this period.  If he’d accepted a check, he would have had to wait until the banks were open the next day to cash it – by which point the value his payment would be halved.  So, Schnabel took the cash and spent most of it immediately.  It was the economic situation in Germany, which made America’s Great Depression look like a country picnic, that led to the German public giving the Nazi party a ruling majority in 1933. 

More recently, following the Soviet Union’s collapse in late 1991, a power vacuum left Boris Yeltsin’s Russian government unable to enforce its own laws - resulting in a combination of oligarchs holding the real power, and a massive crime wave ranging from financial fraud, to drug trafficking, to child pornography.  And, of course, the government was unable to deal with food shortages or even provide most basic services.  Small wonder, then, that Vladimir Putin has been able to hold onto power since 1999 by promising “a dictatorship of the law”, which was seen as a balm to many Russians whose new freedoms merely constituted a lack of law & order.  While Putin is no Hitler, it’s also clear that he’s an oppressive tyrant, easily willing to “eliminate” pesky journalists and others who question his power.

Which brings us back to Molenbeek.  Reports indicate that the Belgian government knew that Molenbeek was becoming a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, but was unwilling or unable to do anything about it.  Whether by design, neglect, or intention, weak government was a contributing factor in the attacks in Paris.  While the primary cause was Islamic extremism, we should bear last week’s events in mind when we hear politicians and protesters propose the neutering of the government which is charged with, among other things, protecting us.