Commentary

Trust fund mistrust … and surplus trepidation

This article originally appeared in The Washington Times on January 27, 1999.

There’s certainly no doubt about where President Clinton stands. Faced with a burgeoning surplus and the highest peacetime tax burden ever, he told a crowd in Buffalo, N.Y., that the federal government could use their money more wisely than could they. He has turned out to be the worst sort of big-government Old Democrat.

Of course, Mr. Clinton never did believe his 1995 declaration that “the era of big government is over.” It was just another of his many official lies - his promised middle-class tax cut, his promised new direction in policy toward China and Haiti, his promise that U.S. soldiers in Bosnia would be home in a year. Last year the president promised to set aside the entire surplus to “save” Social Security, and then proceeded to squander much of it on the usual boondoggles for the usual interest groups.

It’s even worse this year. The message is the same - not one penny of the surplus can go for general tax relief. “We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right,” Mr. Clinton allowed. But if they didn’t, he warned, Social Security would collapse. And since there apparently isn’t a single program he believes can be cut, Washington will have to continue consuming people’s earnings at an ever-faster rate.

For what? The biggest chunk of the surplus would be used so that this most political of presidents could become the country’s largest investor. Although average people can’t be trusted to save money for their own retirement, bloated, inefficient, and wastrel Uncle Sam would be trusted to invest their money to bolster Social Security. And to do so without giving in to the overwhelming temptation to abuse its power.


The issue is fundamental: Who is better trusted with spending people’s money, the people or the government?


Of course, the president also has proposed a brand-new spending spree. My Cato Institute colleague Stephen Moore figures the bill to be at least $100 billion over the next five years for a plethora of pork: money for bike paths and car-pool lanes, additional subsidies for big business through the Export-Import Bank and similar agencies, more cash for farmers, investment handouts for private companies, grants for local school construction, more spending for government-paid “voluntarism” through Americorps, new and potentially massive expenditures to extend Medicare to younger people, and much, much more.

The hypocrisy is worst of all. Yes, the president allows, the Republicans are pushing a potentially popular tax cut. He plans on standing on principle, however. “What I said in the State of the Union speech was not as popular as what others can say,” he contended. The man who does nothing, even choose his vacation spot, without checking the public opinion polls is now posing as a statesmen.

None of this should surprise us. Although in 1992 Bill Clinton tacked brilliantly to run as a New Democrat, he peopled his administration from the left.

His policy proposals - higher taxes and spending, government economic planning, nationalization of the health care system - were more of the same. His refusal to protect workers whose unions use their dues for political purposes and decision to wage class warfare against the “rich” reflected his refusal to let principle impede his desire to expand state control over individual lives.

One person who recognized early on the extraordinary nature of President Clinton’s program was former Polish dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski. While acknowledging that communist doctrines were “partly utopian and partly wrong,” Gen. Jaruzelski, forced from power in 1989, told the the New YorkTimes in 1993 that he retained “the values of the left.”

What political philosophy did he feel close to? “Actually, in Clinton’s program I see elements I like a lot,” he responded.

The former dictator presumably still likes what he sees: a faster-growing state, increased manipulation of the economy, higher penalties on the most productive and entrepreneurial, tighter direction over young people’s lives, further control over the health care system, and Orwellian wordspeak about reliance on the private sector while favoring the public sector.

Mr. Clinton may be a more committed believer in democratic political processes - after all, he, in contrast to Gen. Jaruzelski, won several elections. But the American president shares with the retired Polish general a belief in the infinite perfectability of man by beneficent social engineers running the state.

It is this belief that should become the new political battle line. Republicans will lose if they attempt to nit-pick Bill Clinton’s proposals without attacking his philosophy. The issue is fundamental: Who is better trusted with spending people’s money, the people or the government?

Mr. Clinton demonstrates there really are no New Democrats, only Old Democrats in more electable clothing. Just ask Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who should know.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.