Government & Constitution

Insufficient Bang for the Buck

P.J. O’Rourke said it succinctly: “Giving money and power to the government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

We all know the examples — road construction at $100 million per mile, money tossed down a courthouse rathole so portly teenagers can take a shot at blaming McDonald’s for their super-sized posteriors, the free Cadillacs and $145,000 salaries for the lucky duckies on the new Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, plus 20.25 cents per mile.

All told, annual spending by state and local government in Pennsylvania is now up to $8,213 per capita, according to the latest numbers from Matthew Brouillette, president of the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation — or $32,852, on average, for a family of four, and that’s not counting federal spending.

Some of the money for that local and state spending comes from borrowing — money that will have to be paid down the road, either by us or our kids. Still, the bulk of this local and state spending is funded by local wage taxes, the state income tax, property taxes, or by the taxes we pay every time we stop at the pump or go out to eat. Additional funds come from the taxes and fees collected from businesses, a form of taxation that simply inflates the prices of everything we buy.

Add federal taxes to these state and local levies and the Tax Foundation reports that Americans, on average, will spend 107 days this year working for taxes — 70 days to pay their federal taxes and 37 more days to pay state and local taxes. By comparison, we’re saving, on average, only the equivalent of two days of work per year.

Add further the price of mushrooming regulations and lawsuits, plus the price of slower income growth due to the disincentives to investment and work caused by a puffed up and overly intrusive government, and we’re easily at the point where we’re half-socialized, and more than halfway to where the American Dream has been turned into a nightmarish scenario of centrally planned idiocy, confiscatory taxation, bureaucracy run amok, and a blizzard of paperwork, zany lawsuits and red tape.

Already, we’re at the place where the state of Louisiana requires Shamille Peters, a black woman in New Orleans, to have a license to arrange and sell flowers. “The test to get the license is judged by existing florists, and they routinely fail two-thirds of the applicants,” explains Peters.

“Today,” writes Brian Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, “Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid seem on track to lead Americans to working more than half their lives merely to feed a government machine dedicated to kicking back some of their own money to them, accompanied by lots of nannying, bullying, commands, and a large skim off the top.”

Adam Smith got it right more than two centuries ago, in “The Wealth of Nations.” He wrote, “There is no art which one government sooner learns of another than that of draining money from the pockets of the people.”

Still, bad as it is to have the sticky fingers of a bungling government rummaging around in our wallets, what’s worse is a federal government with a bloated $2.57 trillion budget that can’t deliver on its most basic of responsibilities — the safety and security of the American people.

Altogether, that $2.57 trillion is equal to $8,700 in federal spending for every man, woman and child in the nation, on top of what’s being spent at the state and local level, and we still don’t have a system in place to effectively inspect the shipping containers that are arriving at our ports every day from overseas, or a system to adequately scrutinize the tons of toxic chemicals that are going through our cities in trucks and rail cars.

We are, in fact, well over three years past the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and there’s still no biosecurity program in place that can stop pathogens from walking out of U.S. laboratories, the turf war continues between the F.B.I. and C.I.A. over who’ll pocket the largest slice of the anti-terrorism budget, a full 97 percent of the nuclear material stockpile in the former Soviet Union remains outside the range of any U.S. monitoring, the commercial cargo being shipped on passenger planes is still being ineffectually inspected, and we’re still protecting our nuclear reactors against a suicide plane attack with local cops and pee shooters.

As Thomas Jefferson put it: “I own that I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.† In our time, oppressive enough to grab 107 days of work and still not get the job done.

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