The ‘48th in the Nation’ Ruse

Civil society and freedom, not big government and politics, hold the key to solving Nevada’s 'social ills'.

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, February 14, 2005

For years, power-hungry Nevada politicians thought they knew precisely how to guilt-trip Silver State voters into submitting to ever-bigger government and ever-higher taxes.

It was a formula: Cite and recite, like a drumbeat, Nevada’s alleged ranking among the other states in some category of public spending.

Never mind, of course, that most new residents of Nevada have moved here precisely to escape the tax-and-spend policies dominating those other states. The script said, just ignore that; recite Nevada’s standing in whatever government-spending category you’d like engorged—while, of course, trying to look like you’re operating in good faith.

If your audience doesn’t stop and reflect, you’re probably home free. What you’ll have done is reframe the issue—deceptively. Now Nevadans’ preferences for liberty and small government can seem, to the uninformed and unreflective, callous and selfish.

It’s all hogwash, of course. The big issues where Nevadans are repeatedly beaten about the head and shoulders with this particular stick turn out to be issues where any state’s standing in the national Spending Olympics is largely irrelevant to its subpopulations’ success or failure.

Per-pupil spending is a good example. For years the National Education Association and its Nevada affiliates have incessantly chanted this particular mantra. Just last fall, for instance, it comprised the very heart of the “national average” education funding (read: NEA funding) question on November’s ballot.

But the ploy no longer worked. Enough residents of the Silver State now understand that—contrary to what the NEA always seeks to insinuate—there is no significant correlation between per-pupil spending and academic achievement.

Washington, D. C., for example, ranks second nationally in per pupil funding, 13th in pupil-teacher ratio and 12th in average annual teacher salary ($47,049). But in academic performance, D.C. sits flat on the bottom of the national barrel. Meanwhile, our Utah neighbors bring up the rear on spending—51st in both per-pupil spending and ratio of students to teachers—but in actual academic performance, Utah ranks 20th.

The story is similar, remarkably, when we turn to the other main areas where Nevada is so often flogged for coming in low on the national totem pole—the so-called “social pathologies.” There we also find little correspondence between level of government spending and positive change.

Part of the explanation, no doubt, is that these so-called social ills and pathologies are, after all, simply patterns of individual behavior. And though such behaviors—suicide, smoking, teen pregnancy, etc.— may be manifestly self-destructive, they nevertheless still reflect the nearly infinite universe of subjective factors (conscious and unconscious, subtle and gross) that necessarily go into individual choices.

In short, the State is far too blunt an instrument to do what the power-seeking personalities who gravitate to government always seek, and often candidly propose, to attempt: to engineer the subtleties of other people’s behavior. Indeed, the milieu of politics and government is almost perfectly optimized for failure in this area.

Human growth and transformation, after all, are the very stuff of civil society, and civil society and the State are opposites. When George Washington said that “government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force,” he was making a deep and critical distinction.

Government, by its most essential nature, relies on force and coercion to achieve its objectives. Civil society, on the other hand, operates voluntarily, through reason, eloquence, genuine charity—agape—and the finally transcendent mysteries of human relationships. These—where people freely give of themselves because they are committed to helping, because they genuinely believe in what they are doing—are the only genuinely powerful levers of human transformation and growth. The alternative, the mailed fist of governmental coercion and confiscation of private wealth, brings little but the cold touch of death.

The presumption that government power-seekers always seek to inculcate—that government spending is the end-all and be-all of any solution to any social problem beyond outright violence—is not only false but actually reverses the truth.

The prescient Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this explicitly when, after visiting England, he called for the abolition of its new public relief system.

Private charity, he noted, had the great benefit of establishing a “moral tie” between giver and receiver. In contrast, impersonal government relief subverts any sense of morality. While recipients—compelled to submit to an inhuman bureaucratic nexus in order to receive—feel no gratitude at all, taxpayers appropriately resent their involuntary, unchosen, contributions.

In all conflicts between State and civil society, these same principles remain true.

Growth and transformation require freedom.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute

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