Commentary

Putnam: SLOW Government

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Economic development pundits (often of the Big Government persuasion) promote ‘slow growth’ and ‘The Slow Economy.” Below, Cambridge selectman George Putnam proposes a new kind of “Slow.” – Editor

by George Putnam

My day job at Yankee Farm Credit involves financing farmers, which relates to both food and money. In recent years we have been seeing more nontraditional farmers, and I coined the phrase SLO agriculture for Sustainable, Local and/or Organic agriculture. My choice of acronym was a deliberate reference to Slow Food and Slow Money. Later I learned about Slow Living, and that all of these movements are part of the larger Slow Movement.

George Putnam

The philosophy of “Slow” has much to offer. Who doesn’t think that modern life is sometimes too fast? But for all that it has to offer, the Slow Movement is missing something. It is missing what I call SLOW Government.

SLOW Government is the opposite of fast government. Fast government seeks to use the power of government to solve more and more of life’s problems, resulting in more laws, more regulations, more government programs, more government bureaucracy, more taxes to pay for it all, and more government control over our lives.

SLOW Government first asks the question: Is this a necessary and proper function of government? In a country founded on the principle of limited government, this is a question that we too often fail to ask. SLOW Government recognizes the importance of culture and society outside of government.

The inspiration for SLOW Government came from one of the principles of Slow Money: “There is such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, finance that is too complex.” (source) I believe that there is such a thing as government that is too fast, too big, and too complex.

A good way to think about SLOW Government is as an acronym, which is why it is capitalized:

S is for Sustainable. Government should be financially sustainable. Current policies are not sustainable. Cash outflows cannot indefinitely exceed cash inflows. Debt cannot increase without limit. We in the Farm Credit System have some experience in this area. We know that excessive debt causes borrowers to fail. We know that excessive debt causes financial institutions to fail. The Farm Credit System itself has had several near-death experiences in its long and storied history. Excessive debt also causes governments to fail. That is a fate to be avoided at all costs because it leads to great misery.

L is for Local. Government should be as local as possible. Centralized administration is the enemy of democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville made this observation in the 1830s in his famous book Democracy in America. On my employer’s blog I have written two posts about Alexis de Tocqueville’s views on the importance of local government, using New York and China as examples.

O is for Organic. The economy should be as organic as possible. Government should allow the economy to develop naturally, without being forced or contrived. Government’s management of the economy should rely as little as possible on subsidies, mandates, grants, tax incentives, stimulus spending, etc. Such artificial devices confuse the price signals that are necessary for the economy to work. Such artificial devices also lead to crony capitalism, which is to be avoided because it causes citizens to lose faith in both business and government.

W is for Wise. Government should be wise. Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism, said: “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” (source) Our government has had so many things added to it that it has become unmanageable. It has become unwise. No one can understand the Byzantine complexity of the endless laws, regulations, programs, agencies, departments, boards, etc. that constitute our government. We need to subtract things from government until it is once again manageable and wise.

One of the intellectual fathers of the Slow Movement is Henry David Thoreau. His influential 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” begins with this sentence: “I heartily accept the motto ‘That government is best which governs least,’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.”

That perhaps overstates slightly what I mean by SLOW Government, but the sentiment is certainly in the right direction. SLOW Government does not mean NO government. It does mean government that is more Sustainable, more Local, more Organic, and Wiser than our current government.

And with this introduction to SLOW Government, I wish you a happy Independence Day!

UPDATE: Fellow Vermonters have taken the bull by the horns on the “S is for Sustainable” aspect of SLOW Government. Biddle Duke, owner and president of the Stowe Reporter, together with friends Rob Foregger, Steve Silverman, Craig DeLuca, Bob Anderson and Jim Del Favero started a movement that went national in August 2012: Fix the Debt. Sign their petition! Click here for the story of how this movement began in Vermont.

UPDATE: Fellow Vermonters have written the book on the “L is for Local” aspect of SLOW Government. In September 2012 Susan Clark, town moderator of Middlesex, and Woden Teachout published Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home. Read their book! “Slow democracy” means local democracy (and more). Vermont town meetings are an example of slow democracy.

This evergreen message was republished from Putnam’s July 4, 2012 post in one of his blogs, The Switchel Traveler. Born and raised on a Cambridge dairy farm, Putnam is retired from a career in farm finance and now sits on the Cambridge selectboard and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns board. He has a knack for finding common ground and interesting conversations with people he doesn’t agree with.

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