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Into the sunset

If government programs are so necessary, let's vote on them again

Issue: "State of the Union 2003," Jan. 25, 2003

If a genie appeared on my desk to offer just one magic piece of legislation out of Washington (and maybe every state capital and county seat as well) that would make me the happiest in the years to come, here's what I'd ask for: a law that absolutely required the sunset of every other law within no more than, say, 10 years.

I thought of this again last week when I read in our own Mailbag column the brief letter from WORLD reader Deborah K. Farmer of Blaine, Wash., who asked: "During wartime, yes, I'll forfeit certain civil liberties, but will the government forfeit its wartime-acquired powers during times of peace?"

The answer dictated by almost all our experience with governments of all kinds is, of course, probably not.

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I'm not referring here, mind you, to the wisdom or the constitutionality of various governments' original involvement in a variety of different assignments. I'm just assuming that involvement-for better or for worse. It's a fact of life that people look to their governments to solve a host of problems. I think they do that too often. But that's not the point here. The point is that once governments are given such tasks, it's terribly difficult for them to let go.

Two generations ago, for example, the Roosevelt administration launched the Tennessee Valley Authority-partly to control flooding up and down the Tennessee River, but even more to provide an economic stimulus that ultimately prospered half a dozen different states. To deny the positive effects of TVA is to stick your head in the sand. But to argue the continuing need for TVA's vast bureaucracy in the early 2000s is like saying George Washington still needs a bodyguard.

Similarly, whatever urgency demanded the creation of the Social Security Administration while our nation was in the pits of the Great Depression has long since been eclipsed by the incredible prosperity we've enjoyed since then. Make the argument, if you will, that government has some responsibility to those who reach the end of their productive lives with no resources for basic necessities. It would still cost society far less to take good care of those folks than to continue to pretend Uncle Sam is good at administering a retirement program for us all.

The list goes on. Who can deny that emergencies of various kinds affect the well-being of America's farmers, and that temporary assistance may be called for? The problem is that what's temporary this year is assumed next year to be a mandate to manage commodity prices all over the world.

And if in the 1960s we needed a Civil Rights Bill, is it wishful thinking to claim now that society has in large measure learned its lesson and that we no longer need the colossal weight of government threats to make us behave? Could a motel or restaurant chain these days survive the opprobrium of media and social outrage that would result from refusal to serve a customer whose skin didn't satisfy the host? Yes, I'm well aware that such discrimination happens every day. My argument is that informal public ire is there to counter that discrimination at least as forcefully as governmental rules ever can.

The debate over affirmative action has similar ramifications. Concede the argument, for the moment, that we needed to reach out more aggressively to provide opportunities for some who wouldn't naturally have found such openings. Does that mean we will always need a bureaucrat to stand there forever-counting, counting, and counting some more?

Two fallacies lie behind the assumption that government programs, government policies, and government structures-once put in place-must stand there forever.

The first is that you really can't trust the people. Even as I cite the examples listed above, I can hear critics responding: "Let go of that law, and people will revert almost immediately to their bad behavior." Some will. But in God's great scheme of things, humans can also learn to behave. There's still plenty in the present human predicament to worry about. But on a host of fronts, we are a good bit more caring and humane than we used to be.

The second fallacy is that government is smart enough to manage things. I would argue instead that government might, now and then, be smart enough to deal with a short-term emergency. But almost never is government smart enough to set up programs and policies that continue to meet needs over the long haul.

Which is why integral to every single legislative proposal should be a required sunset provision. We'll set up this program, we'll fund this initiative, we'll create this department-but we'll also guarantee our citizens that before a decade ends, so will all authority to continue what we're starting today.


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