Opinion: Government oppresses more than serves

January 5, 2014


An enterprising journalist recently unearthed a remarkable statement made by Hillary Clinton during her attempt to nationalize health care in 1993. According to Clinton, if we Americans are allowed too much discretion in how we spend our health care dollars, we won’t spend wisely and won’t get the care we need.

“The money has to go to the federal government because the federal government will spend it better,” she said. There you have the pro-government philosophy in all its hubris, condescension and indifference to history and common sense. In this view, we are helpless, ignorant children, too stupid to take care of ourselves. The omniscient and benevolent government must make choices for us. If you believe in this vision, you are the secular equivalent of fundamentalist rattlesnake handlers. If you are comfortable being belittled by people in high office, then you are the government’s lawful prey.

In the light of the bungled health care rollout, Clinton’s assertion is laughable. In fact, the word most often used — by both liberal and conservative commentators — to describe the government’s performance is “incompetent.” Moreover, the law was passed with no attempt to build a consensus and was cynically sold on the basis of blatant lies (“If you like your health insurance, you can keep it,” etc). But this is not some anomaly. Dishonesty, incompetence and brute coercion are hallmarks of government operations. Unfunded mandates, entitlements financed on borrowed money, prodigal scandals, incomprehensible bills that no one has read created by clueless bureaucrats — these are familiar parts of the government package.

Remember that it’s customary for Congress to exempt itself from the decrees it imposes on the rest of us and that quixotic programs to “transform America” inevitably become politicized instruments to reward friends and punish foes. The latest diversionary craze is another campaign against “inequality.” Its promoters decry “greed” and demonize “the rich.” But they ignore the fact that seven of the nation’s 10 riches counties are in the Washington D.C. area, the nest of government power. Do you think that their main purpose is to serve you?

The president himself recently condemned government agencies that are “big,” “outdated” and “poorly designed,” blaming them for the throes of his own signature health care law. This from our most evangelical cheerleader for the expansion of government. He excused his “management style” and the White House organization from responsibility, quaintly charactering the “World’s Most Powerful Office” as a “tiny” part of the government behemoth.

The liberal “New Republic” recently complained that the Affordable Care Act debacle would impair the progressive agenda.

“Liberalism has spent the better part of the past century attempting to prove that it could competently and responsibly extend the state into new reaches of American life. With the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the administration has badly injured that cause, confirming the worst slurs against the Federal Government. Reversing the initial impression of government ineptitude won’t be so easy.” (Note the use of the word, “slur,” as if the government were some sort of oppressed minority.)

You might think that the Affordable Care mess would inspire the New Republic to re-examine the goal of “extending the state into new reaches of American life.” Perhaps the state is not the best vehicle for improving the welfare of Americans, after all. Perhaps it can’t be trusted to act “competently” and “responsibility.” Is there some alchemy by which tax dollars become more valuable when squeezed through the labyrinths of the state? Or does government spending and the proliferation of bureaucracies primarily serve to increase the power of politicians and bureaucrats?

“The Affordable Care Act is the Russian novel of social policy, now totaling 20,202 pages,” wrote the New Republic. “Loopholes and exemptions abound.” But isn’t this just business as usual for grandiose governmental schemes?

There are many ways that we can help those in need. We have the resources. But we’re entitled to expect better performance. Governmental agencies are notoriously wasteful and inefficient. They have little incentive to save money or improve performance. Redundancies are common. There are some 47 different federal job training programs, reporting to eight different agencies. According to the Washington Post, over 3,000 government organizations and private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence: “So large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist … how many agencies do the same work.”

Governments throughout history have more often oppressed than served those they govern. Fear of government power was the guiding concern of the Founding Fathers. The Constitution was designed to keep government in check, not to facilitate its expansion. Skepticism, not blind faith is called for. Government agencies ought to meet minimum standards. They should be compelled to justify their programs on the basis of costs and benefits and to get rid of ones that don’t work. Unfortunately, bureaucracies are immortal and resistant to reform. And the sky’s the limit when you’re spending someone else’s cash.

— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


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