Whom Do We Eat First?

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, June 16, 2003

We call people elected to the Nevada Legislature our “representatives,” but of course they are not.

Genuine agents or representatives are always subject to the orders of the individuals who retain them. They can be dismissed at any time, and—most significantly—cannot legally act contrary to the interests or wishes of their employers.

Clearly, that’s not the case with members of the state Senate and Assembly.

For months the leadership in both chambers of the Legislature has worked hard to contravene the wishes of Silver State citizens. Numerous polls and enormous correspondence from constituents have clearly proven that most Nevadans do not support Gov. Guinn’s plans for a more oppressive tax structure. Yet precisely that has become the goal of legislative leaders.

True, the history of political theory provides Nevada’s political class with many rationales for ignoring the considered will of voters. Those justifications range from the supposedly greater wisdom of a natural aristocracy to a supposedly greater access to expertise and information.

Yet, to paraphrase William F. Buckley Jr., Silver State residents would probably be better governed by the first 100 names in the Pahrump phone book than by those Nevadans whose power-hunger drives them to seek law-making authority over their fellow citizens.

First, demographically, there’s much less of a social and educational gap today than existed in post-Colonial America, when the natural-aristocracy argument had greatest force. There is, therefore, much less likelihood today of obviously greater wisdom in our elected politicians vis-à-vis the man in the street. Indeed, many members of Nevada’s political class essentially lack marketable skills. They only find jobs—often in the bureaucracies of local government—through their political connections.

A second reason why random Nevadans might easily offer superior governing wisdom arises from the issue of character. The appetite for power that leads many politicians to pursue office is often precisely the sort of personality disorder that should disqualify them from office.

The important point to keep in mind is the defining attribute of government—its legal monopoly, within a given territorial area, on the use of force and violence. Because of its ultimate and unavoidable foundation in violent coercion, wrote Tom Paine, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” George Washington made a similar point: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master.”

Because of its basis in force, government has always attracted to it those eager to take the wealth of others. Indeed, the anthropological record suggests that the first governments arose when looting bands decided to put down roots and make their local pillaging permanent.

The great German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer pointed out almost a century ago that at root there are only two ways to gain wealth: One can produce goods or services that people will voluntarily purchase. Or, one can use force and violence to parasitically seize the wealth produced by others.

The former method Oppenheimer termed the “economic means to wealth”; the latter method he termed—significantly—the “political means.”

Here in Nevada, for the past year, we have seen the “political means” in all its squalor. Guinn and his legislative collaborators refuse to accept less than $1.25 billion in new state revenues—a sum about 10 times what is genuinely needed, in the view of reputable experts, to surmount the state’s post 9-11 shortfall.

Nevertheless, despite six months of diligent thimblerigging, leaders of both chambers—like Guinn—have failed in their basic job of achieving legislative consensus. The key sticking point? Just whose flesh should be devoured first. Consequently, last Thursday the Carson City special session dissolved into acrimonious and ignominious farce.

When thieves fall out, says a Danish proverb, the peasant can recover his goods. Hopefully, that will happen in Nevada. But the Guinn era’s main lesson is that Nevadans need real protection from their political class.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) would be a good place to start. Passed by initiative in 1992, it places a tight cap on all state expenditures, limiting increases in per capita state expenditures to the inflation rate. It also mandates immediate refunds of all surplus revenues—a provision that protected Coloradoans during the 1990s from the heedless expansion of government that in Nevada, when bust finally followed boom, produced this state’s budget shortfall.

Very quickly upon assuming office, Nevada legislators start recognizing that they have distinctly different interests from their constituents.

It’s time their constituents recognize the same thing.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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