Commentary

Peddling Dependence

Another presidential election, another bidding war in which your independence is on the auction block. One cannot read a newspaper today without discovering yet another “freebie” that a presidential candidate is promising in order to secure votes. Of course it’s not just our votes that they’re after: it’s power and its corollary, our increasing dependence on the federal government in ever more dimensions of our lives.

If you’re prepared to sell more of your independence, Vice President Al Gore currently is the highest bidder. In recent weeks he has endorsed massive new federal taxpayer outlays to subsidize Medicare enrollees’ prescription drug purchases, as well as highly redistributive tax credits for certain retirement savings accounts. With Medicare now funded increasingly out of general revenues and expected to become insolvent in 2023, proposals for additional benefits to be paid to rich and poor alike are particularly ironic.

But Al Gore’s promises go way beyond subsidies for prescription drugs and tax incentives for retirement savings. The vice president also wants to use “surplus” tax revenues to support education and the environment. Gore’s education plan, for example, calls for massive new expenditures that for the first time would involve the federal government in recruiting and licensing teachers. Combined with proposals for targeted federal tax cuts for various activities favored by Gore, those policy initiatives paint a clear picture of government’s reaching ever more deeply into the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans.

Democrats’ formulation of proposals that increase the government’s hold on the lives of ordinary Americans is no accident. As long ago as 1991, in an article said to have had great influence on then presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, political consultant and pollster Stanley Greenberg prescribed exactly these sorts of programs to regain a Democratic majority. Columnist Robert Novak noted this connection last February, explaining Greenberg’s view that the Democratic party “must make the ordinary American dependent on government.”

Remember the political context of 1991. At that time many Democrats feared that their party had forever lost viable majority support. Greenberg was more sanguine, however. Writing in the American Prospect, he described a strategy for the Democrats to move “From Crisis to Working Majority.” Greenberg advised Democrats to “rediscover broad-based social policy that sends a larger message: Democrats are for ‘everybody,’ not just the ‘have-nots.’”

To Greenberg that meant “defending and enlarging social insurance initiatives that reach the lower and middle classes rather than constructing safety nets that protect only the poor.” He stated that “the party must once again become the party of government.” Describing social insurance programs as providing “the dominant character of America’s welfare state,” he embraced a view of government as “a network of social insurance programs aimed at providing economic security over the life-cycle of individuals.” Greenberg recommended that Democratic leaders articulate “a vision of a broad-based state,” building on the party’s “legacy of a bottom-up majority coalition that uses the state to tilt the balance in favor of ordinary people.”

Clinton and Gore have followed Greenberg’s game plan assiduously. Whatever the purported problem, they propose a government “solution” couched to imply benefits for masses of ordinary people. Never mind that the benefits may not be real or that the purported beneficiaries (and others) may actually be harmed. As to the costs, the antiseptic language of “federal outlays” obscures the fact that such programs involve spending millions of dollars of other people’s money. Could we not at least insist that politicians and commentators be more honest with their language, making explicit the taxpayer’s role in the revenues and outlays of the federal government?

Apparently not. Politicians and the news media know there is no “federal” money — only taxpayer money. Yet a typical article in a major national newspaper described a recent Clinton proposal as “much more generous” to recipients and “much more costly to the federal government.” Correction: The Clinton proposal was much more costly to federal taxpayers.

Another recent article stated that Gore’s plan to reduce the estate tax by a smaller amount than the Republicans proposed “would cost only $7 billion over 10 years, compared with $104.5 billion for the Republican plan.” Correction: The Gore proposal would allow taxpayers to keep an additional $7 billion over 10 years compared with $104.5 billion under the Republican alternative. Leaving money in the hands of those who earned it and their intended beneficiaries is now defined as a “cost”! How is the ordinary American, whose hours are filled with work and family, to sort out this misleading claptrap?

But in the larger institutional context, perhaps honest language wouldn’t change the outcome anyway. So long as half of the earners in America continue to pay more than 95 percent of federal income taxes while the other half pay less than 5 percent, opportunities for exploitation abound. Expect more grandiose promises this election year for new and expanded entitlements, implying ever more dependence on the state. If people don’t value their freedom and feel no shame about taking other people’s money, they might as well sell to the highest bidder. The rest of us must find another path.

Charlotte Twight, professor of economics at Boise State University, is author of the forthcoming Cato Institute book, Dependence By Design: The Rise of Federal Control Over the Lives of Ordinary Americans.