All Commentary
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In the Grip of Madness

“Thank God we had the federal government last week to bail out the private sector!”  That is what a rather statist friend of mine declared a year ago as the economy tanked, almost gleeful that the financial crisis seemed to be proving how much we all need a massive federal establishment to both regulate and rescue us.

Never mind the federal government’s own indispensable role as an enabler in the crisis, from its reckless monetary policy to its jawboning banks into making dubious mortgage loans. Never mind the long-term danger of its assumption of colossal new obligations and the moral hazard in the message its intervention sends. My response to my friend was of a more narrow focus. “Thank God we have the private sector to bail out the federal government not just last week, but every week!” I exclaimed.

Think about it. Taxes on the private sector pay a majority of the federal government’s bills. For most of the rest, the government borrows by selling its debt obligations, mostly to private-sector entities–including banks, insurance companies, and individuals.

The federal government is the world’s biggest taxer and the world’s biggest debtor. If those of us in the private sector didn’t pay our taxes or didn’t buy Washington’s paper, the feds would have gone belly-up decades ago. We’ve rescued Washington to the tune of tens of trillions of dollars over the years. A big difference between Washington’s bailing out the private sector and the private sector’s bailing out Washington is that the private sector has to work, invest, employ people, and produce goods to come up with the cash. It can’t create it out of thin air like Ben Bernanke can.

Our friends in Washington have blessed us with future burdens almost too astronomical to comprehend.  In the name of taking care of us in our old age, we are saddled with no less than $6 trillion in Social Security payouts over the next 75 years–for which there are no presently earmarked funding streams. According to Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation, the unfunded obligations for the new federal prescription drug program, enacted under President Bush, total another $8 trillion.

On and on it goes. The private sector has an awful lot of bailing out to do in the coming decades. I shudder to think how deeply we taxpayers will have to dig in the not-too-distant future to pay the bills of our benevolent, compassionate, and forward-thinking government.

Since Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the federal government has spent a full billion dollars every single hour. Before his term is half over, federal spending will have doubled in just a decade. The deficit in one year’s budget is now as large as the entire budget in George W. Bush’s first year as president, 2001–and I thought not very long ago that the spending spree he and the Republicans gave us would be tough to beat! The flood of red ink is now adding to the national debt to the tune of about $4 billion every day. At well over $11 trillion, that debt amounts to $37,000 for every living American.

Too Big to Succeed?

We’re told by the wise planners in Washington that certain private firms are “too big to fail.” So we’re handing big chunks of them over to the government.

The question we all should be asking ourselves is this: Are we trusting our economy and our lives to a government that is too big to succeed?

Once upon a time in America, most citizens expected government to keep the peace and otherwise leave them alone. We built a vibrant, self-reliant, entrepreneurial culture with strong families and solid values. We respected property and largely kept the spirit of the Eighth and Tenth Commandments against coveting and stealing. We understood that government didn’t have anything to give anybody except what it first took from somebody and that a government big enough to give us everything we want would be big enough to take away everything we’ve got. We practiced fiscal discipline in our personal lives and expected nothing less from the people in the government we elected, or we threw them out.

But somewhere along the way we lost our moral compass. And just like the Roman Republic that rose on integrity and collapsed in turpitude, we thought the “bread and circuses” the government could provide us would buy us comfort and security.

We gave the government the responsibility to educate our children, though government can never be counted on to teach well the main ingredients of a free society–liberty and character–or just about anything else, for that matter. We asked the government to give us health care, welfare, pensions, college education, and farm subsidies, and now our politicians are bankrupting the country to pay the bills. This welfare state of ours has become one big circle of 305 million people, each with his hand in the next fellow’s pocket.

This is a government whose reach even before the financial crisis scarcely left an aspect of American life untouched, from the cradle to the grave and the volume of our toilet-bowl water in between. As a portion of our personal income, its tax and regulatory burden consumes at least five times what it did just a century ago. But to the majority on the Potomac, government is nowhere yet big enough. This is madness writ large.

Stick to the Knitting

Remember In Search of Excellence, the 1982 best-selling management book by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman? One of its salient points is that an organization gets off track when it no longer “sticks to the knitting.” When it allows its mission to blur and stretch far beyond its founding design, when it becomes distracted by endless and dubious new responsibilities, its core competency evaporates. It will fail to do what it is supposed to do, because it’s doing too much of what it’s not supposed to do.

It may come as a surprise to those who see aspirin made in Washington as the cure for every ailment, but the federal government is not God. It can’t even be a good Santa Claus. It’s no Mother Teresa either, because on those occasions when it does some good it usually costs an arm and a leg and sends a big part of the bill to generations yet unborn. The fact is, the bigger government gets, the more it starts to look like Moe, Larry, and Curly.

Accentuating the madness of the present day, the cover of Newsweek declared last March, “We are all socialists now.” Pardon me, but I’m not about to sign on to a proven flop.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is