The real gangster

Government grins as it pretends to be generous with its patrons

Issue: "Untouchable?," April 7, 2001

When Joe Lieberman proposed-seriously-last week that the federal government stimulate the doddering economy by sending 200 million Americans a check for $300 each, he sent exactly the wrong kind of message.

The net effect, of course, isn't all that much different from the $60 billion in tax relief proposed by Republicans in Congress. Either way, "They're going to spend it," Mr. Lieberman said. "And that's what the economy needs for a bit of a lift right now." Uncle Sam would send checks to everyone who presently holds a job. "Mom, Dad, kids, whoever worked and does the payroll or income tax," suggested last year's Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

OK-so maybe it's nitpicky-but there's something colossally wrong with the symbolism involved in a grand mailing by the federal government to 70 percent of the entire population. It's too deliberately calculated to portray Washington as the Grand Source of All That's Good. It prompts people in their subconscious to rewrite the Doxology to say, "Praise Uncle Sam, from whom all blessings flow."

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Granted, it's not just the federal government that likes to work this way. Big corporations play the same game. My auto insurance company, for example, makes it a point once or twice a year to send me a fairly meaningless refund of $36 or $109 or something like that-partly to distract me, I think, from the fact that I've just sent them $860 or $1122 for a six-month premium. While unloading my wallet with one hand, their other hand tries to persuade me they're really nice guys and not robber barons after all.

But State Farm isn't a monopoly like the federal government; State Farm can't send me to jail if I switch to some other insurance company. Nor are the auto insurance companies extracting 21 percent of the GNP from society at large like Mr. Lieberman's employer is. It's OK to talk about the clout and overweening power of the big corporations, like Mr. Lieberman's colleague Al Gore did all last year, except that the real gangster in the place is the very enterprise both those men wanted to head.

It's only marginally better, in all probability, that they lost and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney got the jobs instead. For the Republican Party is proving itself not a whit better than the Democrats at restraining the claim the federal government makes on the personal, family, and corporate budgets of its people. Republican Congresses of late have been every bit as profligate with our money as Democratic legislators of the past, porkbarrelling down the federal fiscal expressways with nary a glance at the caution signs.

Nor is Washington alone in such habits; it's just that the feds are by so far the biggest spenders, using up that 21-percent portion of everything we earn before anyone else gets to it. But state and local governments do pretty well with what's left, spoiled rotten just as Washington is by their ability to produce-virtually on command-whatever revenue they think they need. Here in North Carolina, we voters just acquiesced in a $3.1 billion bond issue for higher education, guaranteeing that at our own expense statist schools will extend their lopsided advantage in competing with private colleges and universities. In education, especially, government grins as it pretends to be generous with its patrons, but rarely gives back anything like what it takes.

That, indeed, is the big issue with government at every level these days. It desperately wants voters at every level to see it as generous, benevolent, and thoughtful-when in fact its main characteristic is fiscal hunger. It keeps kidding us into thinking it's fine-tuning all the fiscal solutions we need-while in fact it is really only playing with something like a final solution.

As Robert Bartley noted in his Wall Street Journal column last week: "The government does not put money in people's pockets; it takes it out of some pockets and puts it in others. If the government writes checks for $60 billion in tax rebates, it will borrow $60 billion more or pay back $60 billion less in debt. Just how are these offsetting transactions supposed to 'stimulate' anything?"

Here's what they'll stimulate: even further fiscal drought.

For in the process, government also always skims off its substantial handling fee for doing what it does. That's what government is too much about these days. It produces hardly anything. It trivializes its biblically indicated assignments. Mostly it just consumes. And the more we keep looking to Washington, or our state capitals, or even our county seats for such solutions, the more we get eaten alive. False gods have always had big appetites.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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