The Engines of Government's Growth

Perusing The Washington Post on Sunday, two stories leapt out that suggest that America may have passed that point beyond which the growth of government can never again be reined in.

The balance of forces in this city has turned against fiscal restraint, and deficits ad infinitum may be our future, until we go the way of the great commercial republics of the past: Holland, Spain and Great Britain.

The first is a front-page story, “Lawmaker-Turned-Lobbyist a Growing Trend on Hill,” about two of the most powerful members of the Senate, Don Nickles of Oklahoma and John Breaux of Louisiana.

Nickles has one of the finest conservative voting records in the Senate. Breaux, from the standpoint of a conservative, is about as good as you can get in the Democratic Party, unless you are talking about Zell Miller of Georgia, the gold standard.

Though in the prime of their careers, Breaux and Nickles are retiring. Are they going home to practice law? To write books? To run a college? Nope. They’ll both be staying in town.

Writes Post reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum: “Lobbying-law firms all over town are salivating at the idea of hiring one or both of the well-connected senators. … And Breaux and Nickles are anything but coy about their future intentions to cash in.”

Breaux estimated to Birnbaum that he has already chatted with five investment banks, 10 law firms, 10 trade associations and 10 corporations that might want him on their boards. “I had no idea the number of opportunities that are out there,” said Breaux.

Like hundreds of ex-congressmen and senators, Breaux and Nickles will line up with the corporate elite in their unending struggles with the government. But other than seeking deregulation of the companies they will represent, they will likely be seeking tax breaks, to hold on to old subsidies or to get new subsidies.

They will not be working for citizens and taxpayers who have a vital interest — family survival and the preservation of a republic — in holding down the growth of government, or reducing its cost or size.

Today, lobbyists in this city who want something from the U.S. government, for which taxpayers must pay, number in the tens of thousands. Now that the GOP has become a party of Big Government, there is no taxpayer lobby with anything like that kind of firepower.

Which brings us to the second story in the Post, an admiring piece on Rep. Jim DeMint, campaigning for the Senate from South Carolina, on making all beneficiaries of Big Government pay for its care and feeding.

Asks DeMint, “How can a nation survive when a majority of its citizens, now dependent on government services, no longer have the incentive to restrain the growth of government?” DeMint speaks of an “eleventh-hour crisis in our democracy.”

His words echo those of Scottish Professor Alexander Tyler, writing more than 200 years ago, on the fall of the Athenian republic.

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government,” wrote Tyler. “It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship.”

Today, 18 million Americans work in government — in health, education, the military, and local, state and federal bureaucracies. The number of Americans receiving Social Security and Medicare is in the scores of millions, with 77 million baby boomers not far back in line now.

There are millions receiving veterans’ benefits, tens of millions on food stamps, Medicaid and welfare, and millions more who receive the Earned Income Credit — i.e., they pay no income tax, but get an annual income supplement from the U.S. government.

The lower half of the U.S. labor force carries roughly 4 percent of a federal income tax burden that is largely borne now by the top 10 percent of earners. Then, there is corporate welfare, which Beltway lobbyists fight to preserve and expand, and the pork barrel projects congressmen simply must take home to their districts.

In Latin America, many governments have passed the tipping point, voting to deliver more in benefits than citizens could afford. Repeatedly, they have had to be bailed out by the U.S.-backed International Monetary Fund. Europe’s welfare states are in crisis. Immigrant workers from the Islamic world are needed to maintain benefits that are being cut. Like the Athenian republic, the American republic may be on the same path.

Patrick J. Buchanan [send him mail], former presidential candidate and White House aide, is editor of The American Conservative and the author of seven books, including A Republic Not An Empire.