Although they would no doubt disagree, by and large liberals have succeeded in one of their most basic fundamental missions – they have turned the federal government into a remarkably large redistributionalist system.
The programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society – Medicare, Medicaid, federal education funding – grow with each passing year. Myriad New Deal programs continue in perpetuity – the Federal Housing Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Labor Relations Board, the list goes on.
And that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. One need merely glance at the Government Accountability Office’s recent report on duplication to get a sense at the breadth and depth of Washington’s attempt at equalization. There are 18 programs aimed at domestic food assistance, 20 programs spanning seven agencies to reduce homelessness, 80 programs for transportation for the “transportation disadvantaged” (whatever that means), 47 programs that offer job training, and 80 economic development programs.
Despite the increasing thickness of rope by which Washington weave’s society’s social safety net, inequality hasn’t diminished, indeed the chorus of American rancor directed at the government’s inability to succeed in its redistributionalist mission has only grown louder.
And as George Will writes in a recent Washington Post column, that is causing trouble in Washington.
“Liberals have a rendezvous with regret,” writes Will. “Their largest achievement is today’s redistributionist government. But such government is inherently regressive. It tends to distribute power and money to the strong, including itself.”
The problem, as Will notes, is that as the federal government attempts to replace the marketplace as the predominant allocator of wealth, it is forced to grow. And as it grows, both in size and power, it increasingly attracts the specialized interests with the money and power to shape government policy. The result not an elimination of the division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’ but merely a reshuffling of who falls into those categories. By and large the monied interests win and the average man loses.
But there is another impact, this one arising out of human nature. “People are less dissatisfied by what they lack than by what others have,” Will opines. “And when government engages in redistribution in order to maximize the happiness of citizens who become more envious as they become more comfortable, government becomes increasingly frenzied and futile.”
That’s a highfalutin way of saying that people, regardless of what they have, tend to want more. And the government, who has positioned itself as the sole actor capable of giving it to them, grows rapidly and becomes increasingly ineffectual as it does so. It becomes the proverbial “chicken with its head cut off,” doing a lot of running around but doing very little to get anywhere.
And while that all may seem harmless enough (beyond the enormous debt burden it fosters) it has the potential to set us down a dangerous road. As F.A. Hayek wrote in his seminal book “The Road to Serfdom,”
“Once government has embarked upon planning for the sake of justice, it cannot refuse responsibility for anybody’s fate or position.
. . .As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of directing this power.”
But how can and how will it use that power? By what principles will it or ought it be guided? . . . What socialism has promised was not an absolutely equal, but a more just and more equal, distribution. . . While absolute equality would clearly determine the planner’s task, the desire for greater equality is merely negative, no more than an expression of dislike of the present state of affairs. . . All it tells us in effect is to take from the rich as much as we can. But when it comes to the distribution of the spoils, the problem is the same as if the formula of “greater equality” had never been conceived.”
The result is a frenzied societal chaos that parallels the increasing futility of the government’s redistributive mission. We’re seeing this play out before our very eyes as liberal’s growing program of redistribution only leads to increasing angst over the lack of fairness. Where will it go from here? Unless our course is changed, it will be down the road to serfdom.