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What’s government really supposed to do?

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By Harold Morgan

Some things are outside the proper scope of government. That much is clear to me.
But like what? Specific examples are easy. At the federal level, there are ethanol subsidies, nearly everything that happens in the bedroom and specification of the graphics for street signs in neighborhoods. For the latter, see my post at www.capitolreportnm.com.
At the state level, I’ve been making suggestions for a couple of years in the largely unsuccessful hope of inspiring what is now the Martinez administration. One is closing, for cost reasons, the El Camino Real International Heritage Center, located four miles off Interstate 25 in the middle of nowhere.
At both the state and federal levels, quasi-governmental entities are good candidates for elimination or recasting into the private sector. Federal examples are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. State examples include New Mexico Magazine and the Railrunner.
In fairness, though, the Martinez administration deserves some credit for actions that, if not quite bold, certainly are interesting. My cleverness award goes to the two-year halt of construction of college buildings paid for by state government.  The move addresses the result of college money being tied to square feet of buildings. So what happens? Colleges build buildings. During the two years, the administration will review the funding formula.
Trying to get out of part of the rail track purchase and dumping the Commission on the Status of Women are two other worthy actions.
At the federal level Rep. Paul Ryan has been talking very big picture reform for several years. Those ideas have come together in the House budget proposal.
At the state level, though, and certainly within the administration, so far as I can tell, little consideration exists at the level of asking just what is the proper role of government, overall.
On the left, Think New Mexico is a self-proclaimed “non-partisan… results oriented think tank.” Certainly little broad based thinking shows there. Think New Mexico would dispute my placing the organization on the left. Their board has a couple of Republicans, but look at the rest. See www.thinknewmexico.org.
The Rio Grande Foundation carries the conservative, er, libertarian banner. I worked with RGF. It was a happy relationship. RGF is serious, for sure, but seems hidebound in that libertarian ideology.
Former state Rep. – and likely congressional candidate – Janice Arnold-Jones is a major exception, a Paul Ryan of sorts for New Mexico. From the conservative side, she does think seriously about government. See www.Janice2012.us. Arnold-Jones also seriously considers details, sometimes getting buried by her geek tendencies.
Unaddressed by nearly everyone, even sometimes Arnold-Jones, are the questions of what government should do, and, within the “should” category, what ought government to do. The distinction is that no person or organization can do everything it should do. The libertarian gods, Freidrich Hayak and Joseph Schumpater, are one place to start the “ought” question.
My long ago economics text, “Economics,” by that good Keynesian, Paul Samuelson, is another. In the ninth edition, Samuelson blithely accepts “the trend toward greater government authority.” He talks about “public goods,” those things such as national defense that the market cannot supply. He discusses “the collective conscience of the American people” as a policy basis. With a nod to the collectivist Rousseau, he touches on “merit wants” where government regulates behavior. But whose “merit”? Whose “wants”?
“Public goods and social overhead,” the latter an especially interesting idea, are the offerings from Joel Mokyr in “The Enlightened Economy.”
The idea of “entrepreneurial human capital” comes from Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist. Building entrepreneurial human capital seems to fit under social overhead.
I’ll come back to these ideas on occasion with the objective of creating questions for our public dialogue.

Harold Morgan
New Mexico News Services 2011