Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Working Government

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Volokh Conspiracy's Ilya Somin writes a thoughtful post with this quotation from Obama's inauguration speech as the vehicle. Professor Somin argues that "[Government] has systematic flaws that justify a presumption against it," basically defending the virtues of small government. It's a great piece of work, and Volokh has a great comment culture, so read the whole thing. However, I think Somin passes over the fundamental problem with this statement, with only a passing reference to what I consider its biggest flaw: "Who could possibly be against government when it 'works'?"

My problem with Obama's statement is not that it has no general presumption about limiting government power, but rather that it has no general presumptions at all. The only positive declaration implied by the statement is that what "works" is important; but without any idea of what "working" is, how are we the listeners supposed to learn anything from this statement? Without any semantic content in the statement, listeners are free to attach any interpretation they want to it, making Obama into a tabula rasa for everyone's hopes and fears. Everyone's in favor of things working; the problem is that nobody can agree on how best to arrive at the "working" conclusion. Obama's statement, like many before it, expresses the obvious and skips all the controversy that comes attached.

For reference, here is the full transcript of Obama's inaugural address. The statement in question can be found on page 2.