Trickle Down Government

Why does the expression “trickle down,” as in trickle down government have a negative connotation? Most of the good things we have come from a kind of “trickling down.” Be it warmth and light from the sun, water from snow accumulations melting on the tops of mountains, ideas and discoveries of the great men and women that trickle down to us in simpler but readable and usable forms, ideas that we latch onto, and that make our lives incomparably richer than they would have been without that “trickling down.”

Most commonly the expression is used in economics. Here the theory has it that if top income earners have more money, they will invest their money in businesses that will produce goods at lower prices and employ more people.  The principle tenet of the theory is that economic growth flows from the top to the bottom.

Similarly, as in supply side economics, trickle down theory suggests that a policy of tax cuts and other financial benefits to businesses and rich individuals will indirectly benefit the broader and poor population. This process is also described by the horse-and-sparrow theory, which says that if you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows. (That’s true, isn’t it?)

One might also say, and without opposition, that in the best of circumstances the material and spiritual possessions of the parents trickle down to their children. And in fact when children do benefit from their upbringing it’s because of a kind of trickling down, rather than from a direct handover. For in fact children benefit much more from the examples of their parents, trickling down to their kids, than from the parents’ words that have a way of not trickling down, of not reaching the children.

Now in the debate of last Thursday, October 6, Governor Romney had this to say:

“Last night I thought was a great opportunity for the American people to see two very different visions for the country. And I think it was helpful to be able to describe those visions. I saw the president’s vision as trickle-down government and I don’t think that’s what America believes in. I see instead a prosperity that comes through freedom. We have two very different courses for America – trickle-down government or prosperity through freedom.”

The President didn’t reply. Obviously he should have, to this and other things his challenger said. In this particular instance he even had the example of his own vice-president, of Joe Biden, who at a House Democratic retreat in Maryland on January 27 of this year said:

“I started thinking about [how the Republicans] keep talking about us, how we’re big government, trickle down government, and they’re free enterprise….But putting kids through school through [government] Pell Grants, that’s trickle down government.” And I would add to that, something he didn’t say, but certainly implied, that there was nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, it was a good thing.

Why didn’t the President reply, and he could have done so, off the cuff, without the teleprompter. He might have easily given any number of thousands of examples of trickle down government that have helped to give us the greatest prosperity the world has even known. For example, just think of what might be the West today if law and order trickling down from central government in the East to the mining and cattle towns of the Frontier, think about what would have been if law and order had never reached them. What would have been the result? A kind of Hobbesian war of all against all?

The President ought to have reminded his challenger of that famous passage from the Leviathan describing the condition that results when there is no government, or as Hobbes said, political community:

“In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Governor Romney is just wrong when he says, “we have two very different courses for America – trickle-down government or prosperity through freedom.” He must know that prosperity is as much the result of government as it is of freedom, that is, of good government, not that of any number of brutal totalitarian dictatorships, but a government whose benefits do trickle down to us, its beneficiaries, in myriad forms and varieties, reflecting the myriad differences and different needs among us.

Prosperity through freedom alone, as Governor Romney would have it? is simply not possible, except for the very few, that which history has demonstrated over and over again.

The President should have answered his challenger with a defense of government, as being no less essential to out prosperity than freedom. Why didn’t he do so?

The President might have said all kinds of things in response, any number of “zingers.” Trickle down government is the Iraqi War veteran returning home and speaking to a class of high school students. Trickle down government is those same kids, and other kids, seeing school nurses for eye and ear exams. Trickle down government has given the angler clear streams in which to fish. As you can see there is no end to the things the President might have said in reply.

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