Thursday, March 20, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
For Nevada’s fervent libertarian community, the real fear isn’t hepatitis C or the mortgage meltdown, but rather a populace that will look to the government to solve these pressing problems.
Indeed, nervous libertarians said they expect the public to call for tighter regulation following revelations that the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada was using unsafe practices, leading to recommendations that 40,000 patients get tests for infectious diseases. Anti-government forces have also had to look on with gloom as politicians and the public have called for bailouts of homeowners at risk of losing their property to foreclosure.
“Every time a situation comes up, people say we need more government,” said Chuck Muth, a leading libertarian activist.
“During emergencies and crises, that’s when government expands,” said David Boaz, the executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
“Yes, this scares the heck out of me because it’s not the solution,” said Wayne Allyn Root, a Las Vegas businessman and leading contender for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination, referring to government regulation and the hepatitis C scare. (More moderate observers disagree with Root and say Nevada’s health care industry needs a closer government eye.)
Politically, the effects of these crises could be far-reaching. The recent events will confirm for many Nevadans a conviction shared by about half the country, if the 2000 and 2004 elections are any guide: Government plays an important role regulating public health and safety and providing a social safety net in times of economic dislocation.
Moreover, the Nevada Democratic Party, generally more friendly to activist government, has made significant voter registration gains this year, with Democrats now in the majority.
Taken together, these trends could chip away at Nevada’s long-standing libertarian underpinnings.
Brian Waddell, a University of Connecticut political scientist, said scholars call catalyzing events — such as, say, our own hepatitis C scare — “Big Bangs.”
Government responses are exemplified by the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Depression--rapid government expansion to spur the economy and tighter regulation to help labor unions and rein in corporate power.
“It takes a crisis for it to happen, and then they go looking for friends, and usually that means government institutions,” said Randall Parker, a University of East Carolina economics professor who has written about the New Deal.
In fairness, however, government isn’t always responding to people’s individual needs. The Soviet launch of Sputnik, another catalyzing moment, led to the development of the American space program.
More recently, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to stem the corporate malfeasance revealed at companies such as Enron and Global Crossing in the early part of the decade.
Public opinion about government intervention tends to track these events and their visibility, said Carroll Doherty, a public opinion expert at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
In a Pew poll taken in 1994 — the height of conservative ascendancy — 64 percent of the public said government regulation of business does more harm than good.
In 2002, in the wake of the high-profile Wall Street debacles, the number had dropped to 48 percent. The number has ticked back up, but is well below the 1994 high.
Nevada’s state government, one time almost nonexistent, has its own history of responding to crises with new powers, regulations and programs, said CSN historian Mike Green.
After a 1954 Las Vegas Sun expose of the gaming industry revealed that mobster Meyer Lansky had a hidden ownership in the Thunderbird, the Legislature created the modern gaming regulatory regime. During the same 1955 session, responding to extreme school overcrowding, the state tried to improve education by creating county school districts. A threatened boycott of casinos over racial segregation led to an agreement that allowed black Americans to enter the casinos.
And in the ’70s, with the feds circling overhead and America’s image of Las Vegas passing from trendy and cool to seedy and downcast, public officials pushed the mob out of town.
For Nevada libertarians today, even more trouble could be on the horizon. Tax revenues are lower than expected, cutting into education and social services. Crime usually rises during economic downturns. And Lake Mead is running dry. All point to potential government intervention and more taxes.
Muth said he’ll continue to shout it out: “Too many citizens have come to believe government is the solution to their problems, rather than the cause.” Government cannot create safety and security for every citizen, and regulation will bring only higher taxes, slower economic growth and the erosion of personal liberty, he argued.
Waddell, the political scientist, said he finds Americans’ long-standing antipathy to government, going back to the Revolution, understandable but baffling, considering its key role in protecting public health, safety and welfare: “Americans are told to believe government is bad, and yet it’s the only institution that, if they don’t like it, they can do something about it.”