How big should a minimal state be?

Amos and I have recently conducted a conversation over on his blog, which segued into what fundamental framework should be provided by the state, and what should be left to the market. This is a topic of many worthy and important academic discussions, but here is my take.

Amos: "What is considered 'fundamental'?"

The minimum that works well.

More generally, a law is beneficial to the extent that its benefits outweigh its costs. I think we can agree on that because it's a very general statement.

I am in favor of those laws where benefits to all clearly outweigh the costs to all by factors of magnitude.

Because laws are inherently a burden, I am against those laws where clear and great benefit cannot be unambiguously shown. Laws aren't free, every law that is passed is additional complexity and burden. So each law that is passed should undergo rigorous tests to make sure it is actually necessary and has substantial benefits that vastly outweigh its costs. Existing laws should also be subject to such review periodically.

Ostensibly, exactly this should be the job of congresspeople, but our practical experience is that the congresspeople are extremely bad at performing this very job. They pass laws not because they are beneficial, but because they are popular, or because they get compensated for it. And they do not periodically review old laws to make sure that they are still relevant.

These are critical faults of the current system - faults that must be addressed. Furthermore, human nature makes it difficult to address this. Merely requiring congresspeople to behave will not make them so. After all, the U.S. government is bound by constitution to be limited, and yet over time it has managed to free itself of all restraint.

The answer would be a system that does not yet exist, but which would in and of itself provide a balance. I described an idea for such a system under WikiLaws. At the very least, I think it's worth a shot.

Our current systems have no balance and are full of dishonesty and abuse. It is entirely possible that the cynicism of the leaders has gone so far that they actually engineered 9/11 so that Iraq could be invaded. At the same time, privileged minorities such as in France obstruct positive and necessary reforms because, well, competition would make them let go of their unfair privileges. Farmers get unfair subsidies and when you threaten to take them away, they block the roads with tractors.

This has got to stop. We need a system that has balance. We can't just keep repeating Churchill's old saw about democracy being "the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." We need to try new things. We need to find a better system.


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