In looking at the great governmental debates going on in the United States I believe they really boil down to two simple (opposing) positions. Do you believe the government is the answer to most problems or do you believe the government is a source of most problems? This is a binary question and there are rarely binary problems or solutions, but if you look at the modern political debates everything is painted in absolutes and polarized positions. One side is good, the other evil.
There are clear things we must have a government for and people have organized since before recorded time to address those unavoidable needs. I’m talking about things like defense, social order, the economy of effort, and other basic needs required for communal wellbeing.
Our founding fathers, as they wrestled with the failures of the government put into place following our divorce from England, argued about what the right kind of government was and how to implement it. The failures of the Articles of Confederation were obvious in the way it limited the economic well-being and the defense of the colonies. ThoughtCo provides a good synopsis on the weakness of the original government and the issues the founders hoped to address with their second effort. In essence, the Confederation failed to provide sufficient centralized power to regulate the commerce between the states and raise a military to defend the colonies from either external threat, or internal rebellion when the need arose. But in those debates, the fear of an all-powerful centralized government remained fresh in the minds of the political leadership who knew firsthand the potential abuses of the state.
As John Adams wrote, “It is by balancing each of these powers against the other two, that the efforts in human nature toward tyranny can alone be checked and restrained, and any degree of freedompreserved in the constitution”
I believe, since the World War II, the government has grown far beyond what the founders could have ever imagined. For example, Congress was not envisioned as a full-time job. The capital, built on reclaimed swampland, was uninhabitable in the summer months, so the Representatives would meet for a little while, address the necessary actions and then return to their communities to resume a normal life. Now they are full-time federal employees responsible more to the people who will offer them wealth than to the people they represent. Senators were to be responsible to the state governments they represented, now they too are full-time employees seeking the wealth that comes from their positions. The bureaucracy of the executive branch has never shrunk from what we expanded to in the war, only the roles and responsibilities have changed. With the social legislation put into place during the Roosevelt years and greatly expanded during Johnson’s administration, we have created layer upon layer of workers and managers whose tenure is untouchable, overseen by the political appointees who will come and go with each new administration.
Ask yourself three questions:
- Has this larger more encompassing government made our society better or has it simply reacted to the changing culture by fostering more dependence?
- Do the top-of-the-pyramid politicians shape the course of society or do they simply respond to it, as they vie for political dominance?
- Is the social order actually set by those who are beyond public scrutiny?
What I find rather humorous, in my own cynical way, is that those who favor an all-powerful government are now emotionally outraged to the point of derangement over the fact their government is led by someone they despise, and he is doing things they don’t like. It’s almost like they don’t understand Newton’s third law of politics (actually motion but I think you get my point). To determine if an all-powerful government is really something even worthwhile let’s put that aside and talk about how wisely we, the nation, have chosen to spend our money to make America a kinder, more tolerant, and loving society.
Let’s put defense spending aside for a few minutes, for although that is frequently a topic of how much money the government wastes it is an increasingly smaller share of the total government spending. Rather, let’s talk about the great social experiment we began with the creation of social security under the Great Depression-era President – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The idea behind social security was to create a safety net for those who had been unable to save for their retirement years. It was planned as a self-paying program where those in the active workforce would pay into the account at rates equal to or higher than people would draw out.
It appears to be a natural condition in humans to believe if the government was going to pay them in retirement they could use the money they should be saving to meet their more immediate desires. This is the path those in my generation “the baby boomers” chose. As my generation matured and as the economy flourished the social security account prospered and grew. Unfortunately for the social planners, the labor force in society has not continued to expand in size at the rates necessary to ensure contributions would always exceed the rates of withdrawal from the account.
In the 1960’s we saw the government add healthcare as an expense that should be borne/shared by the government, as well as the expansion of the social safety nets with increases in the welfare programs. At the same time, the states began to look into providing their own supplemental programs in healthcare and welfare, and private industry (both healthcare, social welfare, and private insurance) expanded to profit from those new healthcare dollars. All of these programs became “mandated” or “entitlement” programs and are in fact “must pay” bills the government is obligated to fund before it funds the discretionary things (like defense or infrastructure) that most politicians get rewarded for spending on.
As the baby boomer generation retires it leaves a much smaller workforce behind to pay into the system that will now payout to the boomers who will live for another 30-40 years. As a result, the mandatory spending on Social Security and Medicare become an ever-increasing portion of the nation’s gross domestic product. Growing from roughly 4% in 1970 to 10% in 2016, with projections to grow to 15% shortly and with no relief in sight. Expenditures are, according to several sources, growing at rates far greater than the general economy.
When you add in the fact that any money laying around on a balance sheet gives the Congress ideas on how to spend it on things like new programs you quickly see a problem where mandated spending will exceed mandated income. There are always more problems than there are dollars to pay for them, and Congress (whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans) has shown little appetite to limit themselves to the money they will receive in taxes. The solution they always choose is to borrow money based on good faith in the country. They will borrow until the lenders decide not to lend any more. For my purposes, I assume the end of the lending train occurs about the same time the dollar stops being the currency of international trade.
The costs aside, what have been the social impacts of an expanding government with an ever-increasing demand for social engineering and social welfare programs? Are we a better nation for the trillions of dollars we’ve spent on healthcare, social security, and social welfare?
From my perspective, it sure doesn’t seem like we are.
Remember when the government said everyone should have the right to buy a house, and the government expanded its home-buying guarantees so even people who didn’t have the financial resources necessary to sustain the loans could get them? We had Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac as pseudo-governmental guarantors of the loans. Well, those programs certainly worked well, at least until 2008 when all the smoke and mirrors of the programs came crashing down and so many people found themselves in homes they couldn’t afford. How many lives were impacted by those failures?
How about the basic building block of modern society? I’m talking about the family unit. Is the family unit as strong as it once was? How about in the minority groups like African-Americans, the Hispanics, or the Native Americans? Have the social support programs we’ve invested in made those groups more independent and stronger, or have they turned them into groups with an increasing dependence on the state?
We talk a lot about the “American Dream” where an individual with the drive and ambition can succeed in life and rise above the station he or she was born into. Recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said this idea was absurd and no one could raise themselves up without the government doing it for them. Some found this laughable coming from someone who just a couple of years earlier had been a bartender with a BS in Economics and was now making a six-figure salary as a Congresswoman. But in one sense she was right. It took her finding a government job that didn’t require any real skills (other than campaigning) to rise above the challenges she faced with the death of her father. Her biography is vague on what her parents did or how she was able to attend Boston University, so maybe she hasn’t pulled herself up at all and her statements are based on her real-life experiences.
It seems, at least to me, the whole of the Democratic campaign centers on three main points. First, we have the vehement anti-Trump rhetoric making claims that he is either a tool of the Russians, a bumbling idiot, or a criminal. Next comes the campaign against wealth with the claims no one needs to be a billionaire and the idea the wealth of the rich takes away from the wealth of the poor (who are poor through no fault of their own), and finally a bigger government (run by the right party) would actually strengthen the middle class.
I’m sorry but after watching a bigger government unfold for the last 50+ years, and regardless of the claims by the left’s adored leader, I’m not buying any of their claims. The record is pretty clear, whenever government becomes the center of all society the middle class is actually weakened, if not destroyed. It doesn’t matter if there is a Monarch, a Shaw, an Ayatollah, a Dictator, a President for Life, a Prime Minister, a Chief, der Führer, or a General Secretary if the average person is totally dependent on the decisions of the Government for their welfare the middle class will be turned into the lower class within a decade.