The Problem With Big Government

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

—John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1887)

A recent commentary by Yural Levin entitled “How Did Americans Lose Faith In Everything?” prompted me to think about our often crushing lack of faith in the many institutions—governmental, religious, and private secular—that directly affect our lives.  Whether we are discussing the police, a church or synagogue, or even the local Boy Scouts, we see less engagement, support, and trust granted overall to a broad array of institutions by the public.

Mr. Levin lays the cause for this problem firmly at the feet of the people within our institutions—not the institutions themselves.  He writes that “we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions.”  In other words, individuals are using the power and prestige of institutions to advance their own interests and agendas, which corrodes the public’s faith in the institution itself.  Mr. Levin believes that the first step to solving this problem is “constraining elites and people in power so that the larger society can better trust them”, which boils down to an incredibly nice way of asking people to just shut the hell up—and do their damned jobs.

Although there may be a certain sense to Mr. Levin’s assertion—we would all certainly like to see less preening and posturing by leaders in the public and private sectors—I do not believe he adequately accounts for the underlying cause of the problem: The incredible power of so many institutions creates the preconditions for the arrogance and abuses that we now abjure.  

We fear the power of technology companies because their businesses are constructed upon limitless—and often surreptitiously recorded—intrusions into every aspect of our lives.  We distrust academia because indoctrination is often substituted for education, and “experts” working at colleges and universities often presume to tell everyone on the planet how they must live.  Religious institutions have a sad history of sometimes both encouraging and enabling the very evils they claim to hate.

However, no institution in America today inspires quite so much fear and suspicion as the excessive layers and levels of government that all claim to be looking out for our best interests.  Now consuming—at a minimum—over 36% of our nation’s total Gross Domestic Product, the agencies and operations of local, state, and federal governments tax us mercilessly and simply borrow the rest, public debt obligations that now add up to hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars per citizen.

How utterly insane is this?  As a point of comparison, the medieval Catholic Church, the most rich and influential institution of its time, capped its taxes, or tithes, at 10% of income.  Apparently, absolute power was once a lot cheaper to maintain.

We would like it to be otherwise, but the reality of American life is not that our government serves us—we, in fact, serve our government.  We hand over our money, in the form of tax withholding, before we even have a chance to touch it.  We fill in the forms demanded, stand in the lines required, and follow the rules imposed.  To complain is inadvisable; to refuse to comply is illegal.  Our votes seem to change little.  The reach and power of government continues to grow with each passing year.

I am not positive where the tipping point might be, but I believe that government becomes self-reinforcing, growing like a snowball rolling down a hill, when it reaches a certain size relative to the population that it serves; therefore, any attempt to reform government must begin by shrinking its size dramatically so that it can be properly managed and monitored.  Failing this, the vast permanent government can easily resist any effort to rein in its size and scope—and it will justify itself by finding new and inventive ways to “help” Americans.

Unfortunately, that which is claimed to be made more affordable or more effective through the good offices of crushing government control and regulation—housing, healthcare, and education—is a hot mess of high costs and problematic access or success.  Major cities are filled with the homeless, and public schools routinely hand out diplomas that are not worth the paper they are printed on.  Much of the physical infrastructure that is the direct responsibility of government—roads, bridges, tunnels, and waterways—is decaying at an alarming rate.  In many states prisoners are now routinely released early because the funds necessary to continue to incarcerate them are somehow unavailable, and public prosecutors are more and more declining to either press charges or require bail for a terrifying array of “minor” crimes that are actually quite horrible and harmful—if you are a criminal, you definitely live in a golden age (the rest of us, much less so).  

It is madness to continue as we are, and Americans are growing ever wiser to the greedy grift of big government.  

Amazingly, many who now are seeking elected office still are promising new, expansive—and expensive—government programs; they are, however, encountering significant resistance from the electorate.  Blaming voters for failing to embrace another reach into our wallets does not seem to be a winning message, so don’t hold your breath awaiting The Green New Deal and Medicare-For-All.  Both of these programs, and others like them, will be stupendously successful at creating lucrative consulting contracts, attracting campaign contributions from businesses hoping to profit from government largesse/stupidity, and building vast new bureaucracies with loads of cushy and unaccountable government jobs.  

The kicker is that you and I will, once again, be stuck with the bill for it all—and the resulting headaches besides.  No wonder voters aren’t buying this sort of legal larceny anymore, which scares the heck out of the cheerleaders for more and more government, more and more taxes, and more and more control over the daily lives of Americans.

It is far easier to train a dog than a wolf, and it will likewise be much simpler to control a government that is less ferociously attached to spending our money and stealing our children’s inheritances.  Government that consumes 36% of our nation’s earned income (and borrows yet more each day on our behalf) is far too large—and must be drastically scaled back to live within the means we are willing to provide.  Government that maintains itself with only 10% of our hard earned dollars would be far preferable, but it will be an uphill climb to beat back the bureaucrats and their elite enablers to come anywhere close to that target absent events that would amount to a new American Revolution.  

The only other option, however, is indentured servitude to a system that is unresponsive to our needs, determined to assert its will over us, and bound to bankrupt our nation if given the opportunity.  The choice we must make is clear.