Government is the problem

I was first introduced to folk singer John Prine about two years ago. My good friend from college, Alan, moved back to D.C. and brought with him a boxload of Prine CDs and tapes (yes, he still has a tape player). Alan had also learned to play the guitar while away, and when all of us St. Johnnies would get together, not a few of the songs we would pluck and sing (mine, I believe, being the only voice off-pitch) would be John Prine ditties.

There was one I particularly enjoyed called “Paradise,” which has the refrain:

And Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county,
Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay.
“Well I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in askin’.
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

At Nanny O’Brien’s the other night, Alan called that one, “Carney’s song,” not only because it expresses a dislike for big business, but also because it doubts the concept of progress. My favorite verse goes:

Then the coal company came, with the world’s largest shovel,
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land.
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken.
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

The subject matter of the song seems to pit free enterprise against tradition and respect for God’s creation. It’s not a new problem.

Conservatives who believe in both tradition and the free market sometimes have struggles within their heart when they see Mom and Pop shutter their hardware store on Main Street in the massive shadow of a Goliath Home Depot.

Family business is good for the family and the community, but can we really overturn the “election” results when consumers vote with their dollars for Megacorp? On top of that, providing a greater selection of goods for lower prices frees up more capital in a community, providing an opportunity for new stores or businesses to come in and compete for that leftover cash.

The same is true, though, for a smaller set of conservatives when it comes to the environment. Coal miners’ blasting the tops off of mountains and paper companies’ leveling forests are hardly “conservative.” Recycling, which makes us feel good, almost always makes our wallets feel lighter by using up tax dollars for questionable gain.

If we want to save Mom and Pop, can we, with good conscience, call on the government to help? If we reject Mr. Peabody’s idea of “progress,” should we ask Uncle Sam to stop him?

These questions, and their answers, are complex. But we can begin to resolve this problem by calling on Ronald Reagan, whose 94th birthday would be this Sunday on February 6. Whenever we face a societal problem, we ought to turn first to his reminder: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

If you agree that there’s something nice about having the guy who sells you your pipe insulation know your name and always round your bill down, or if you share Prine’s doubt that ravaging nature is progress, ask first how government is exacerbating these problems. Even if you want the whole planet paved and dream that SUVs will some day roam as free as the buffalo once did, if you also believe in free enterprise you should worry about how Uncle Sam wages war on our family businesses and environment.

The first favor government does for Home Depot is regulation. Workplace safety rules, worker protection laws, mandated worker benefits, and a complex tax code that force Mr. and Mrs. Park of Park’s Hardware on H street to divert many hours of their attention from actually running a business. Home Depot is under the same rules, but because of their size they can afford a full-time compliance officer, an in-house attorney, and a tax accountant. Mr. and Mrs. Park hire only Andy, who can wire a light fixture but can’t dissect D.C. or federal regulations.

The second, and most egregious, favor is eminent domain. Quite a few Home Depots and Costcos got their land when the government took it forcibly from Mom and Pop and sold it cheap to the megastores. The local governments see this as serving the public good because it creates more jobs than it destroys, brings in lower prices, and higher tax revenues, even if it destroys property rights.

There are many examples of the government stacking the deck in favor of big businesses–more than enough to fill a book. But what about the old Green River?

We could discuss the federal and state subsidies the coal miners get, such as special tax treatment and cheap leases of federal lands. World War II drove Kentucky coal production to its highest ever levels–thanks to government demand.

But the story of Paradise is simpler than that. It’s also not quite as John Prine tells it.

Paradise, Kentucky is indeed all gone. When Prine wrote those lyrics in 1971, the town really had disappeared. The thing is, it was not Mr. Peabody’s coal train, but Mr. Roosevelt’s (as in Franklin Delano) shovel that hauled it away.

Paradise, sitting on the Green River, shuttered its doors in 1967 when bulldozers from the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority knocked down the last houses in order to expand the federally owned power plant there.

Here’s to the progress of man.

Tim Carney is a Phillips Fellow and a free-lance journalist in Washington, D.C.

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