by Victor Davis Hanson
Who is Afraid of Big Government?
There is no reason to review all the standard reasons why the American people are terrified of an all-powerful federal or state government. The case has been made in thousands of elegant treatises and books, and is best reflected in the Constitution and the written work of the Founding Fathers.
But let me list a few other, less elegantly expressed worries, many anecdotal in nature.
1) Juvenal’s “Who will police the police?”
One of the scariest things about government is its exemption from laws by virtue of its monopoly on lawmaking and enforcement. I see this every day, from the mundane to the profound.
Go to any downtown in America, and one can see how some supposedly efficient, job-creating con-artist once promised a new hotel, stadium, or enterprise zone, then convinced the city council to steal land from some and hand it over to others (e.g., him) — and left an ungodly mess in his wake.
That power to condemn creates a real paranoia in our own lives. While we can defend our homes from the intruder, there is no remedy against eminent domain, especially once we have lost faith in the collective wisdom of those who flock to political office.
On the more mundane level, this week I saw the following examples of government exemption. A local police car randomly did a running stop at a 4-way intersection (should I have called 911?); a city bus driver (very common) cell phoning against California law (report him to the cop running the intersection?); a city garbage truck spewing trash out its top as it sped down Freeway 41 (call his cousins at the state EPA?).
We are all routinely pulled over for any of the above infractions. But the larger the government, the more its power, and so the more its employees feel that they are royal and exempt from enforcement. In other words, big government creates millions who feel the law does not pertain to themselves. Ask Tom Daschle, Duke Cunningham, Chris Dodd, or Timothy Geithner. The result is an increasingly lawless society.
2) The Power of Envy
Government service offers veritable tenure and steady wages for the price of bypassing the American dream of “getting rich” in the private sector. Most follow the odds and realize that a federal bird in the hand is better than two in the private bush.
Yet legions of government (and often union) employees by needs must audit often far richer others, whether at the IRS, the county planner’s office, the zoning authority, or the state regulator. And here the public auditor can, by virtue of his unassailable position, quite easily stymie his private sector upstart counterpart.
A few examples from my own modest experience: Going into the DMV to deal with SEIU T-shirted employees is to face petty humiliation and impediment. I watched dozens of hurried customers stand in line while bored employees at the window lackadaisically redirected them to other bored employees. The subtext was “You need my form and stamp, so calm down, take a deep breath, and wait on my time. It’s not like I have to work for your rat-race company.”
Two years ago, the IRS sent me an “urgent” letter about supposedly not reported W-2s (one thing I learned from my late mother is never, never short the IRS, and so I usually overpay). My accountant in about 2 minutes showed me how an auditing clerk (or computer) had screwed up. He wrote an explanatory letter.
I worried (I didn’t have the demanded supplemental fee) for about 3 months. And then matter-of-factly, 90 days later another letter arrived — admitting the matter was now resolved and I need not pay anything. No apology or explanation. In other words, a single government official was able to try to extort thousands (I am sure many thousands who get such letters are terrified and just pay the bogus supplemental) without explanation. No one in private business can quite get away with that. (I am sure the employee, who hits a button to print such form letters demanding more money, never has his pay docked when the request is shown to be invalid). When the inanimate gasoline pump claims we must pay for 20 gallons for an actual 10 pumped, the gas station owner goes to jail.
I am all for codes, building inspectors, and plant regulators, but an excess of such investigators quickly creates a priestly class who take their own frustrations out on supposedly better off others.
In California there are hundreds of worthless state boards with six-figure, governor-appointed officials. We assume that in our term-limited state, these sinecures are the refuges of former state assembly and senate politicians. In fact, as soon as we elect our state officials, we accept that they will cut deals with state executives to provide for their upcoming retirements — “I’ll vote for this, if in 4 years I get that spot on the state water board or the state fair practices committee.”
We know that if a local supermarket goes broke or a propane dealer goes under, our lives are affected. But in the case of many government entities, their absence would mean absolutely nothing deleterious in our daily lives — and actually much good.
The Blago Chicago mess shows how our tax monies are used to put cronies, cousins, and sometimes worthless people on the public payroll. And the larger the government, the more powerful these constituencies. Here again in California, the public employee unions rail daily that any cuts, layoffs, or furloughs are equivalent to some sort of collective and heartless felony, as if the state in 1998, 2001 or 2004, with thousands fewer employees, was once rendered helpless.
4) The Greek Four-step
I once lived in Greece for over two years, and visit there every other summer. Any casual observer could have predicted its present fiscal meltdown, which is emblematic of big government socialism. Here is the creed of many of the E.U. socialist states.
1) Praise socialism in the abstract and demonize capitalism, especially the American model, as cruel and heartless.
2) Cheat in every way imaginable on your taxes. On any average day in Greece, a shopkeeper, repairman, or business person would offer a product or service for a 30% discount if paid in cash and kept off the books. Tax-dodging was a national pastime — and this from dyed-in-the-wool socialists. (e.g., we are back to the paradigm of this nation’s leading tax-enforcer and tax-lawmaker both being tax dodgers).
3) Connive for every imaginable state entitlement. In Greece, inventing a disability, fudging for an age subsidy, keeping a dead beneficiary on the books are likewise national pastimes. The notion that the E.U. had to send more monies southward than went back in taxes to Brussels made it all the better, as there was a sort of endemic “us/them” or Michelle Obama-like “raise the bar” mentality that something was “owed” to Greece anyway, so why not take advantage of richer European cousins? No honor among socialists?
4) Institutionalized lethargy. When one cannot be fired, then one immediately begins to plot to slow down, how to do the least imaginable work for the greatest pay. The beaches near Athens in the afternoon had plenty of government power, water, and phone panel-vans, as employees went out on a “service call” to the sea. Banks might have ten employees, five customers, and no one at the customer service windows. Again, the government electrician or mechanic would invariably proposition to come back later in the evening to do the work faster for cash without notification to his superiors.
Here are the apparent protocols of such big government socialism: no one believes in it; everyone seeks to cheat the system and others in it; no one wishes to criticize the system when it is easier to con it; the public pretension of humanitarianism encourages private selfishness — sort of like the noble French in 2003 going to the beach for their annual August vacation in scorching temperatures while the state was supposed to keep their aged parents, who died in the thousands, alive in non-air-conditioned flats.
Repressed anger is the national creed: those who work the hardest and pay the most for others less industrious or gifted barely constrain a seething resentment; those on the receiving end constantly channel envy and jealousy as mechanisms to justify why “they” should redistribute income to themselves, the more deserving.
5) Ministry of Truth
Government has the power of symbols to create alternate, scary realities. This week driving to and from the coast, I crossed several stretches of “The Honorable Joe Blow” freeway, and saw dozens of signs that essentially said “this project brought to you by big government stimulus.”
But why should I believe that a state or federal representative who channels pork deserves a freeway stretch named after him — or that his benefaction with someone else’s money was absolutely critical to his state? And why does borrowing billions more to fix an overpass have to be advertised by government billboards (why not a fair practice statute: next to such propaganda some private organization could blare out in a rival sign: “This questionable project meant that we borrowed another $1 billion from China.”)
First, we had a “war on terror” (did we declare war on Japanese kamikazes or SS camps?), then “overseas contingency operations.” What’s next?
“Stimulus,”“man-made disasters” and “no child left behind” mean almost nothing, and surely not “massive borrowing,” “radical Islamic warmaking” or “a failed therapeutic curriculum in our schools.” Orwell was on to something in his focus on the government’s power of language to manufacture truth out of fantasy.
We all need government for defense, security, and infrastructure. But the more of it, the more dangerous — and creepy — our lives become.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson