Politics & Policy

Government’s Broke: Hooray

Washington has less money for bribes, and that’s a good thing.

Imagine what the media reaction would be if in the aftermath of yesterday’s Senate vote blocking new background checks, a leading official of the gun lobby had explained his side’s success by saying: “Bribery isn’t what it once was. The government has no money. Once upon a time you would throw somebody a post office or a research facility in times like this. Frankly, there’s not a lot of leverage.” Washington would be in full outrage mode, and there would be demands to find out who had made such an offensive claim.

Of course, no such pro-gun official has said any such thing. But Politico reports that an official of one of the major gun-control lobbies told them precisely that. Save for a few blog posts and articles, the remark has gone unnoticed, despite the obvious legal implications.

#ad#But it shouldn’t. The analysis of the gun-control defeat in the Senate has focused on the role of the National Rifle Association. “The President reacted with a tirade of blame-shifting more shameful than any [of] our aging typesetters can recall,” noted the New York Sun. Indeed, President Obama called the gun lobby liars, throwing in key senators for good measure. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, who has poured millions of his own “special interest” money into attack ads and other media to promote gun control, called the vote “a damning indictment of the stranglehold that special interests have on Washington.”

Clearly, this is not the whole story. If the pro-gun-control official cited in Politico is right, the current government sequester is working — Washington has less money for bribes. The spending spree that liberals (in both parties) have luxuriated in over the past decade has had a perverse side effect: People used to having their pockets lined turn a cold shoulder when the cash flow slows down.

Sequestration isn’t the only restraint on the persuasion-through-cash habit. An outraged public has forced Congress to curb special-interest earmarks inserted into bills in the dead of night. The annual national debt has reached such unsustainable levels that the punch bowl is being taken away. There’s no longer enough “walking around money” to buy off a few senators in hopes of securing, at long last, the liberal holy grail of gun control. 

What delicious irony. Washington’s welfare state, which has benefited corporations and commoners alike, may be reaching its natural limits. Investing money in Washington lobbyists might no longer promise businesses the kind of return it has done so for decades.

In his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom (a favorite of both Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s), Nobel Prize–winning economist F. A. Hayek explained the process by which special interests corrupt government. “As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what,” he wrote, “the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

As the size and power of government increase, we can expect more of society’s resources to go toward influencing government. And indeed that is exactly what we have witnessed. Federal spending has risen in inflation-adjusted dollars from $2.4 trillion in 2001 to $3.5 trillion in 2012 — an increase of nearly 50 percent. The “staff infection” at regulatory agencies churns out ever more rules that weigh down the private sector more and more. In the past decade, the number of economically significant rules in the pipeline — those that could cost $100 million or more annually — has increased by more than 137 percent.

The lobbyist-industrial complex in Washington has been growing for four or more decades, turning it into a recession-proof city. Over 3,000 national trade associations are headquartered in D.C. In 1970, five state governments had Washington offices; today, almost all of them do.

All of this lobbying has been translated into higher federal spending in the form of transfer payments, subsidies, government contracts, and loans. Regulations are often perverted to eliminate or hobble the competitors of favored businesses, and the tax code has been transformed into a piggybank of social engineering.

The “good government” response to all of these distortions has been to try to curb campaign contributions, on the theory that drying up money in politics will produce more honest government. Such efforts have failed dismally. The Supreme Court has struck down the most restrictive campaign-finance curbs as a violation of the First Amendment. Even some once-ardent supporters of such reform have come to realize that money in politics is like water in a river: You can with great effort divert the water to another channel, but you can’t dry it up; it will find a path.

Limiting the size and scope of government power and restricting the favors that government can dole out look to be the best hope we have of shrinking the influence of special interests in politics. Money is only a symptom of the corruption. Political power excessively concentrated is the actual disease we must combat.

The unknown lobbyist who complained to Politico that bribery “isn’t what it once was” hit upon a fundamental truth. Rather than bemoan relatively puny spending curbs such as those mandated by the sequestration, we should embrace them. The cuts force government to establish priorities and spend money more efficiently. They also reduce people’s temptation — inevitable in any welfare state — to corrupt the rule of law. Far from being upset that the government is “broke,” we should find ways to turn that condition to our advantage.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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