From Cairo to California

SINGAPORE – Egypt and California are headed in opposite directions politically. Egypt has had too little democracy and is moving towards more. California has had too much democracy and is moving towards less. The common mean point they should arrive at is democracy that delivers good government – and I mean “government,” not mushy “governance.”

For decades, “government” has been demonized. Ronald Reagan famously said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” But Reagan was only the most eloquent spokesman for this Zeitgeist. He did not manufacture it; decades of laissez-faire theory and proselytizing did.

Following an explosion of government programs in the 1960’s, a belief developed in the minds of key American opinion leaders and policymakers that the best government is the least government. Reagan captured this assumption well, recalling the sixth-century BC Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s famous words: “Governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish: too much handling will spoil it.”

Two dangerous corollaries emerged from this view. The first was the belief that taxes are inherently bad, and thus that reducing them is the only solution to any public problem. In California, many taxes were reduced by voter initiatives, demonstrating the damaging consequences of too much democracy.