Gerald Ford once said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” That statements has been attributed to many conservatives over the years, but it was actually one of our less recognized President’s who made the observation. The trouble is, he was wrong.
A better variation of the quote, for we pragmatic libertarians, would be this:
A government that gives you everything you want is a government unable to give you what you need.
The problem with government is one of prioritization. It has spent so much time and money trying to solve every minor problem that it is completely unprepared for the major problems.
The Washington Post today has a good read up on one such problem, the record setting weather and climate issues we’ve been dealing with lately. The problem they fail to recognize, when bemoaning government inaction on the climate, is the sheer scope of things we have made competing priorities.
A report out this week from the Congressional Budget Office that suggests the US government should cede research into carbon capture to China and India – two countries that are burning huge amounts of coal, but have shown little care for clean air. This at a time when most agree that dealing with carbon should be an urgent priority.
Now our US labs are marvels of science. Having grown up in New Mexico with a parent who worked at the labs, I looked forward to the occasional “family day” when we got to see the stuff our nation’s scientists were working on. This is one area where the government should be spending more, not less, money. The space program is another area where we should be investing, not cutting back.
The problem, as voiced by my friend Jon Goldstein, is that the federal budget is comprised of tens of thousands of projects that each cost taxpayers only a fraction of a cent. In the aggregate, it is a staggering sum of money – about $3,700,000,000,000. Of that, roughly $31 billion is spent on general science, versus $716 billion for the military and $2.3 on health, medicare, social security, education, and income security (welfare). But separately, each program is so small as to easily be justified.
The government has fallen victim to the same thinking that has felled many companies. We made concessions on expanding benefits, while ignoring that each additional person at the teat, and each additional teat would eventually dwarf our productive capacity. Like the massive benefits program that felled GM, our retirement and benefits programs have left us little to invest in innovation.
At various Berkshire Hathaway meetings, chairman Warren Buffett has envisioned what GM would do if it had contracted many years ago to buy steel at a premium price and had arrived at 2005 needing to get that cost back in line. “It would simply get out of the contract,” Buffett has said. GM’s retiree health benefits, arrayed against the benefits that the Japanese companies don’t provide, are like paying extra for steel. But the odds against GM’s breaking this contract are monumental.
The government, if it invested significantly more in trying to arrest carbon, could solve the issue. Instead, we have created a system whereby the government carries a huge percentage of the population in a stretched and frayed safety net. The irony is that while the CBO suggests we allow China and India to figure out carbon capture, we are all less than safe.
Now that government has a humanity scale issue to solve, our system of government dependence and largesse has left the piggy bank without enough resources to meet the task.