It’s takers versus makers and these days the takers are winning
“Fifty thousand for what you didn’t plant, for what didn’t grow. That’s modern farming — reap what you don’t sow.”
That’s a line from a song about farm subsidies, “Farming The Government,” by the Nebraska Guitar Militia.
But these days it applies to more and more of the U.S. economy, as Charles Sykes points out in his new book, A Nation Of Moochers: America’s Addiction To Getting Something For Nothing. The problem, Sykes points out, is that you can’t run an economy like that. If you tried to hold a series of potluck dinners where a majority brought nothing to the table, but felt entitled to eat their fill, it would probably work out badly. Yet that’s essentially what we’re doing. In today’s America, government benefits flow to large numbers of people who are encouraged to vote for politicians who’ll keep them coming. The benefits are paid for by other people who, being less numerous, can’t muster enough votes to put this to a stop. Over time, this causes the economy to do worse, pushing more people into the moocher class and further strengthening the politicians whose position depends on robbing Peter to pay Paul. Because, as they say, if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can be pretty sure of getting Paul’s vote. But the damage goes deeper. Sykes writes, “In contemporary America, we now have two parallel cultures: An anachronistic culture of independence and responsibility, and the emerging moocher culture.
“We continually draw on the reserves of that older culture, with the unspoken assumption that it will always be there to mooch from and that responsibility and hard work are simply givens. But to sustain deadbeats, others have to pay their bills on time.” And, after a while, people who pay their bills on time start to feel like suckers. I think we’ve reached that point now:
* People who pay their mortgages – often at considerable personal sacrifice – see others who didn’t bother get special assistance.
* People who took jobs they didn’t particularly want just to pay the bills see others who didn’t getting extended unemployment benefits.
* People who took risks to build their businesses and succeeded see others, who failed, getting bailouts. It rankles at all levels. And an important point of Sykes’ book is that moocher-culture isn’t limited to farmers or welfare queens. The moocher-vs-sucker divide isn’t between the rich and poor, but between those who support themselves and those nursing at the government teat.
Plenty of the wealthy are doing the latter, and that has its own consequences, which are often worse than those stemming from goodies for the poor. In a world of bailouts and crony capitalism – which is to say, in the world we live in today – a rational businessperson has to compare the return on investment between improving a product or service, or lobbying the government for goodies.
Frequently, the latter looks better: If you spend $1 million on lobbying, and get a $1 billion subsidy from the government, that’s a thousand-fold return on your money.
It’s hard to do one-hundredth as well through actual capitalism. So why bother to improve your products at all? Just hire more lobbyists. Of course, the government can provide such rewards only because it has vast resources of coercive power, and vast stocks of other people’s money.
Deploying those resources for self-serving political purposes is nothing new, but – as Sykes points out in considerable detail – things are much worse now than they were during previous periods of excess. So what’s next? Well, as Margaret Thatcher once said, the problem with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money. That’s a special case of Herb Stein’s observation that something that can’t go on forever, won’t. With federal borrowing at unsustainable levels, with the bailed-out auto companies and banks not looking particularly healthy, and with the steady drip-drip of financial scandals moving toward the point that even an Obama-friendly media will have to cover them, we appear to be approaching a crisis point.
America is not yet Greece, Spain, or Portugal, but those are the natural endpoints of a moocher-based political system. When the crisis comes, and it will, we should relearn the lesson that the Framers of our Constitution knew and tried to embody: The bigger and more powerful the national government is, the more prone it is to corruption and interest-group domination.
A federal government that actually operated within the limits intended by the Framers would be much smaller, much less capable of creating economic distortion, and much less attractive to moochers and the politicians they enable. The bigger the pot of honey, the more flies it attracts. Undoing what Richard Epstein calls “the mistakes of 1937,” in which most of those limits on federal power were removed by the Supreme Court, would go far toward fixing the problem.
That, of course, would require a Supreme Court with a more traditional view of the Constitution’s limits on federal power. Which would require a president interested in appointing justices with such views.
Something to keep in mind, between now and November.