April 17, 2012

Is the nature of perception anathema to fiscal conservatism?

Wisconsin, where perception matters.
Today in the WSJ, there was an article talking about vindication for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker vis a vis the budget conflict he had had with teachers and their misguided students last year. The WSJ argues that the resulting recall election effort isn't going to work because Walker's budget has led to a decrease in property taxes that will cause voters to appreciate the Walker belt tightening effort in the state. Lower property taxes are indeed a rarity in Wisconsin.
“The public employee unions and other liberals are confident that Wisconsin voters will turn out Governor Scott Walker in a recall election later this year, but not so fast. That may turn out to be as wrong as some of their other predictions as Badger State taxpayers start to see tangible benefits from Mr. Walker's reforms—such as the first decline in statewide property taxes in a dozen years.

On Monday Mr. Walker's office released new data that show the property tax bill for the median home fell by 0.4% in 2011, as reported by Wisconsin's municipalities. Property taxes, which are the state's largest revenue source and mainly fund K-12 schools, have risen every year since 1998—by 43% overall. The state budget office estimates that the typical homeowner's bill would be some $700 higher without Mr. Walker's collective-bargaining overhaul and budget cuts.”
True. And I hope that the WSJ is right about Walker - he had the courage to stick to his fiscal conservative in the face of some pretty fierce opposition. He may now be able to reap the reward of that steadfastness. BUT, he may not.  And in the end it doesn't matter that he stood on principle if he can't get past the recall election. If the next governor is a big government, big union liberal, then Walker's good work will be undone. Quickly.

What worries me is that the nature of voter perception is never on the side of fiscal conservatism. It's an issue much bigger than Scott Walker. It boils down to not being able to prove or disprove a 'not chosen' action. 

Liberals have always argued for bigger government. When they have gotten it and the results have been less than adequate, their argument has always been and will always be, that clearly we didn't do enough. "We should have spent more". "The government should have done more". "We only half-tried".

How do you convince someone that they are paying less tax than they would have otherwise been paying? Bigger still, how do you convince someone doing less creates more? It is counter-intuitive unless you can make them realize that the government doing less allows others to do more. That's a tough sell. Unless you are Barack Obama and want to talk about fictional numbers like jobs saved, how do you even do it with a straight face?  People perceive government as being there to protect people. After all, that's the intention. So taking away from government is typically viewed as a negative. Ergo diminishing government budget means less is being done for people.

The reality is different. More is being done but done far less efficiently. The product of such multiplication should be obvious but it is not. People naturally tend to think that if we are doing little in government we are getting little benefit. Doing more through government is seen as solving more problems. Even when times are good, if the poverty level were 0.1% people would want to do something about it. That something would be a government program. Why? Because no one sees that by keeping government small and unobtrusive, success is occuring on it's own. You couldn't prove that 99.9% of the population isn't in poverty because the government is out of the way. But you can easily convince people that 0.1% of the people are impoverished because not enough is being done. It's easy to say "why aren't we doing x y and z?". It's easy to say it only requires a little bit of spend to fix this.

The reality is that no amount of spend will solve every problem. Some problems are endemic and cannot be solved by government or anyone. There are millions of subsistence level living people in China. Socialism or communism hasn't eradicated poverty anywhere.

So what has to change? Perception. The perception that no system can be perfect and that you have to maximize what is possible, not completely level the playing field for everyone. The perception that less can indeed be more has to be ingrained into society. The idea that freedom, and the Invisible Hand offer the most help to the most people needs to be ingrained in America's DNA. Lastly, the perception that you are not an evil capitalist pig for believing that needs to be spread as far as possible. We want capitalism and liberty because we know that is what will work best for America and by America we mean its people.

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