NRO’s eye on debt and deficits . . . by Kevin D. Williamson.

The Burden


There are about 12.4 million local-government employees in these United States, with a monthly payroll of about $51 billion. There are about 4.4 million state-government employees, with a monthly payroll of about $19.4 billion. And there are about 3 million federal employees, with a monthly payroll of about $15 billion. (For detailed figures, the Census: The federal numbers are from 2009; it’s worse now.)

More than 50 million Americans are on Medicaid. More than 100 million Americans receive health-care benefits at public expense, either through entitlement programs such as Medicaid and Medicare or through benefit programs for government employees.

So that’s a public sector of about 20 million government employees administering a welfare state with at least 100 million clients (and here I’m just combining Social Security and Medicaid, to avoid double-counting). Another way to say that is that 40 percent of the U.S. population is living at the expense of the other 60 percent (and it probably is more like half and half). More than a third of working-age U.S. adults are unemployed, and the central government is the largest employer. Economically speaking, we’re a fighter with one hand tied behind his back.

I recently spoke with a charming young woman who is a Ron Paul supporter. She said Representative Paul’s ideas have “universal appeal.” I asked her why, if his appeal is universal, he is so unpopular. She responded: He hasn’t had a fair chance to get his message out. Earlier this week, I spoke with a charming older gentleman, who is a former member of Congress. He said the solutions to our national fiscal problems are obvious. I asked him why, if the solutions are obvious, implementing them is so unpopular. He said it was a question of educating the American people. Both of these explanations are preposterous.

The American people are excruciatingly well educated about the relevant fact: the checks hitting their bank accounts, monthly or fortnightly. They will not be educated out of them. A generation ago, they might have been shamed out of it, but shame is now impotent. They will not willingly give up those checks, and there will always be a Barack Obama out there to profit by pretending that pillaging half of the country to bribe the other is a kind of moral crusade, rather than a lightly disguised form of armed robbery. Bear in mind that most of this money does not go to help the poor: This is not a country in which 40 percent of the people are poor. Government workers are routinely overcompensated, often lavishly so. This is not government inefficiency; this is corruption, on a scale that is vast and grotesque.

Pres. Ronald Reagan was fond of citing this passage, misattributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee:  “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only last until the citizens discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that the democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, to be followed by a dictatorship, and then a monarchy.” And here we are, at the inflection point — not at the brink of becoming undemocratic, but at the brink of becoming a deeply dysfunctional democracy with a loose fiscal policy indeed.

Some 35 cents out of every dollar in take-home pay in this country comes in the form of a welfare benefit, and about 10 percent in the form of government salaries: The total burden is about 45 percent of personal income. I propose we make that a standard metric for judging the seriousness of small-government programs: Reduce that burden, and you’ll have done something worthwhile.

—  Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.

Tags: Fiscal Armageddon , General Shenanigans


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