Have To?

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I rarely read the Letters to the Editor in the reams of advertising (with interspersed snippets of news) that passes for the local newspaper, but this morning, as I was flipping the pages, a phrase caught my eye. A reader, commenting on the bailout program, waxed indignant. The writer claimed that we "will have to pay for this mess." He referred to the bailout scheme as a debt that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be paying far into the future.

It’s a familiar refrain, which we’ve heard before and will hear again. Maybe that’s the problem: familiarity has bred contempt, or at least indifference. So ignore the familiarity of the concept, and look at it as though for the first time: "we (the citizens) will have to pay for this." Have to? Says who?

Going into debt is easy enough. Everyone understands that using a credit card, or borrowing in any form, indebts the borrower. It’s equally well understood that if someone steals your credit card and uses it, pretending to be you, he does wrong, and injures you unjustly. If I found your credit card on the street, and using it, bought a set of tires for my car, would you simply shrug and say, "I have to pay it?" If I made some really, really, expensive purchases, would you resign yourself to the fact that your children and their children would be saddled with the debt?

How is it, then, that Americans seem resigned, if unhappy, about the fact that those pompous popinjays in Congress have taken all our credit cards and charged about 700 billion to them? Has that resulted in a debt that we "have" to pay? Even more remarkable is the idea that these officious strangers can place into debt individuals as yet unborn. How in the world does that work?

Is there a law that allows one person, or group, to place other persons, or groups, in debt? Wouldn’t that be tantamount to slavery? We’re not talking about taxes here, even granting — for the sake of argument — the authority of Congress to tax us individually. The money to be taken from us is not going to support government (assuming we’d want to do that!) but rather, to rescue the bankers from the collapse of the housing bubble which they created, and from which they profited greatly. The government is acting as bag man, transferring the billions from us to them, but that function of government is clearly unlawful — as if anyone in government cared.

There’s nothing new about the government doing as it pleases with no regard for the Constitution, to which all Congressmen have sworn adherence. It has, in fact, become so commonplace that, again, familiarity has bred indifference. We shrug and say, "So what? Just more of the same." The question, then, is this: how much will we endure before we stand up and say, to our public servants, "Enough! We DO NOT have to pull your cronies’ chestnuts out of the fire! We DO NOT have to pay the bad debts of others. We are sovereign!"

Both of the individuals offered to us as presidential candidates support the bailout. A vote for either one of them can only be construed as support for, and agreement with, that policy. A form of protest that even the most timid among us can employ, without risk or danger, is to stay home on Election Day. As those cunning Chinese are said to have observed millennia ago, a trip of a thousand miles begins with the first step. In a journey to freedom, the first step for Americans might be a step away from the polling place.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is author of All Work & No Pay, which is out of print, but may occasionally be obtained on eBay.

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