Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

People seeking handouts use the war as an excuse

by Victor Davis Hanson

WSJ Opinion Journal Online

In times of national crisis we all look to government. It is the one entity that can marshal sufficient forces to protect us from foreign enemies and provide for our domestic safety. But wartime is often perilous for democracies for reasons that have little to do with alien attack or internal subversion. The general chaos of conflict also offers camouflage for popular claims that would otherwise not stand the light of day. And so the calamitous events ushered in by Sept. 11 have prompted a host of aggrieved individuals and groups–from farmers, to terror victims, to the elderly–to line up at the public trough.

The House and Senate are currently debating a multibillion-dollar farm bailout bill–legislation that is dishonest, counterproductive and boldly hypocritical. Back in 1996 the government inaugurated a supposedly radical–and “final”–$40 billion Freedom to Farm Act. The sponsors’ premise then was that in exchange for “freedom” from acreage and money restrictions on federal charity, farmers would agree to the phase-out of subsidies altogether.

Legislators who drafted that bill have now broken their word and during a time of war are back for more. They have even linked their cause to the war effort by brazenly dubbing their bill the Farm Security Act. Farm Insincerity Act is more like it. Farmers who took the gifts have reneged on the conditions of their past acceptance. And for what good? Over the past five years family farms have been vanishing at an accelerated rate and are almost extinct–in no small part because prior cash gifts, without strings attached or reform demanded, targeted a few specified crops and went to corporations that grew rather than to small farmers who disappeared.

Imagine for a moment if we were to abolish the subsidies for good–or, better yet, eliminate the Department of Agriculture. Does anyone believe that we could therein lose any more of our family farmers? Or can it be that in the past decade the tens of billions were largely wasted on agribusiness concerns, while distorting the rural economy and rewarding inefficient operations–and all at the price of turning rural conservatives into hypocrites by lobbying for the public dole that they objected to for others.

After Sept. 11 hundreds of millions of private dollars were raised to help some 3,000 victims, an outpouring of American kindness rarely seen in the history of any civilization. Yet the U.S. government stepped in to promise in addition an average $1.6 million to each of the departed’s families–a sum nevertheless that many apparently thought either insufficient or not especially charitable.

Forget for a moment the fairness of such ancillary public action–prior victims of terrorist mass murderers from Oklahoma City are already being promised commensurate largess–or the need for government relief in light of $1.5 billion raised through private donations. Instead simply ponder the message communicated and precedents established.

We are, as our president rightly just reminded us, in a long and costly war with the terrorists in which American blood has already been shed in Afghanistan. There will be more sacrifice required in Iraq. And who knows what further terror is in store for us to come on our own shores?

So are the present subsidies–like the deceitful 1996 Freedom to Farm bill–purportedly a one-time payout? Or should we now establish a government insurance fund for all victims of terrorism, or for all soldiers killed in combat, or maimed in military accidents, or for all anthrax victims–or, in fact, for all who can prove some loss connected to the post-Sept. 11 crisis?

Before the war, we were engaged in a great debate over Social Security (remember Al Gore’s “lockbox”?) that was as surreal as it was disingenuous. Americans privately knew that given the present trends of demography and longevity, the rate of disbursement, and the vagaries of economic growth, too many people were getting too much money from too few. No politician could admit as much. Instead many retreated to the Depression-era lie that “you get back the money you paid in.” Rather than reform the system now, we instead await its insolvency in order to have forced on us the needed action that will offend the “elderly.”

If the farmers, the bereaved, and Social Security recipients are to receive specialized government allocations, surely we can expand similar public compensation to include a host of others–reparations for the descendants of slaves, defrauded stockholders of bankrupt companies, the airline industry that was unfairly attacked by the terrorists and subject to new government adjudication, and the insurance companies suddenly liable for enormous settlements. In fact, all such payoffs have already been envisioned.

There are real dangers related to this trend to subsidize or reward particular segments of the population on the basis of their professed need, real loss, or intrinsic merit. First, we ignore the tragic nature of our brief existence, and life’s unavoidable heartbreaks that are the inevitable wages of war, disease, chance and premeditated evil. Yet government can hardly assuage all these hurts that are as unfair as they are frequent–unless it assumes a hubris that it can make good on every loss, iron out every inequity, and overturn all natural and man-made catastrophe.

History teaches, however, that states that try to become such omnipotent angels end up as abject devils. Unelected administrators must seek extraordinary power and growth in their agencies and bureaucracies to enact all their well-meant antidotes. But life remains, after all, not fair, as we know from the thousands of nearly forgotten young Americans who were blown apart for our present freedom at nightmarish places like Antietam, St.-Mihiel, and Okinawa–and who received very little material recompense from the state other than a burial, thanks, and some ribbon and bronze.

The second problem concerns the rise of cynicism–a near fatal symptom to any consensual society in which the idealism of its citizenry is the fuel of its war effort. Particular groups seek concessions even as they know such favoritism is unsupportable on its merits alone–and unhealthy for the body politic at large. Instead, a debt-ridden government is still seen as some giant slot machine in which citizens line up to drop taxes in hopes of getting more back in occasional jackpots. Or perhaps we can envision the Treasury as a huge claims court: The government as tawdry trial lawyer assures us, its grasping clients, that such billion-dollar settlements will scare the system into becoming honest–while assuring any skeptical citizens privately that “everyone does it, so why not you?”

There is a third problem of self-reliance. When attacked, the natural impulse of Americans was immediately to defend themselves and take fate into their own hands–largely because we are still autonomous individuals and so capable of handling catastrophe without looking to others. We again offered stunning contrast to the caution and tentativeness of our erstwhile European allies, who are more conditioned to ask government to provide subsidy and recompense for almost every mishap of man or nature. But in sad truth, peoples who instinctively look toward government to provide for themselves in peace, in turn create a nation that looks to others for its own defense in war.

Finally, let America learn from California that it is unwise for government to promise compensation beyond what it can fund and for calamity it cannot rectify. Here our state budget has nearly doubled in five years. We are broke with a $12 billion budget deficit. And yet our taxes are at an all-time high to pay for all sorts of new agencies to provide all sorts of new entitlements for all sorts of new aggrieved groups–but at the price of a transportation system in shambles, dismal public education, and electricity that is as cheap when unavailable as it is costly when plentiful.

Mr. Hanson, a military historian, is author most recently of “Carnage and Culture” (Doubleday 2002).

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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