Magazine August 10, 2009, Issue

Spaghetti Spending

What’s the end game here? I suppose it’s conceivable that there are a few remaining suckers out there who still believe Barack Obama is the great post-partisan, fiscally responsible, pragmatic centrist he played so beguilingly just a year ago. The New York Times’s David Brooks stuck it out longer than most: Only a few weeks back, he was giddy with excitement over the president’s “education” “reforms” (whatever they were). But now he says we’re in “the early stages of the liberal suicide march.” For a famously moderate moderate, Mr. Brooks seems to have gone from irrational optimism over the Democrats’ victory to irrational optimism over the Democrats’ impending downfall without the intervening stage of rational pessimism.

The end game is very obvious. If you expand the bureaucratic class and you expand the dependent class, you can put together a permanent electoral majority. By “dependent,” I don’t mean merely welfare, although that’s a good illustration of the general principle. In political terms, a welfare check is a twofer: You’re assuring the votes both of the welfare recipient and of the vast bureaucracy required to process his welfare. But extend that principle further, to the point where government intrudes into everything: A vast population is receiving more from government (in the form of health care or education subventions) than it thinks it contributes while another vast population is managing the ever-expanding regulatory regime (a federal energy-efficiency code, a government health bureaucracy) and yet another vast population remains, nominally, in the private sector but, de facto, dependent on government patronage of one form or another — say, the privately owned franchisee of a government automobile company, or the designated “community assistance” organization for helping poor families understand what programs they’re eligible for. In any case, what you get from government — whether in the form of a government paycheck, a government benefit, or a government contract — is a central fact of your life.

A lot of the developed world has already gone quite a long way down this road. If you want to know what Obama’s pledge to “save or create” 4 million jobs would look like if the stimulus weren’t a total bust, consider what “good news” means in an Obama-sized state: A couple of years back, I happened to catch an intriguing headline up north. “The Canadian economy is picking up steam,” reported the CBC. Statistics Canada had just announced that “the economy added 56,100 new jobs, two-thirds of them full time.” That’s great news, isn’t it? Why, the old economy’s going gangbusters, stand well back.

But I was interested to know just what sectors these jobs had been created in. And, upon investigation, it emerged that, of those 56,100 new jobs, 4,200 were among the self-employed, 8,900 were in private businesses, and the remaining 43,000 were on the public payroll. “The economy” hadn’t added those jobs; the government had: That’s why they call it “creating” jobs. Seventy-seven percent of the new jobs were government jobs, or “jobs,” paid for by the poor schlubs working away in the remaining 23 percent. So the “good news” was just more bad news, just a further transfer from the vital dynamic sector to the state.

In Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, government spending accounts for between 72 and 78 percent of the economy, and, as I wrote here earlier this year, that’s “about the best a ‘free’ society can hope to attain this side of complete Sovietization.” But, if you’re not on welfare, working in the welfare office, or working for a “green solutions” company that’s landed the government contract for printing the recycled envelopes in which the welfare checks are mailed out, it’s not an attractive society to be in. It’s not a place to run a small business — a feed store or a plumbing company or anything innovative, all of which will be taxed and regulated into supporting that seventysomething percent. After all, what does it matter if your business goes under? Either you’ll join the government workforce or you’ll go on the dole. So you too will become part of the dependent class, or the class that’s dependent upon the dependent class. Either way, Big Government wins (as we already see in California).

In the normal course of events, the process takes a while. But Obama believes in “the fierce urgency of now,” and fierce it is. That’s where all the poor befuddled sober centrists who can’t understand why the Democrats keep passing incoherent 1,200-page bills every week are missing the point. If “health care” were about health care, the devil would be in the details. But it’s not about health or costs or coverage; it’s about getting over the river and burning the bridge. It doesn’t matter what form of governmentalized health care gets passed as long as it passes. Once it’s in place, it will be “reformed,” endlessly, but it will never be undone. Same with a lot of the other stuff: Keep throwing the spaghetti at the wall. The Republicans may pick off the odd strand but, if you keep it coming fast enough, by the end of Obama’s first year the wall will be a great writhing mass of pasta entwined like copulating anacondas in some jungle simulacrum of Hef’s grotto. And that’s a good image of how government will slither into every corner of your life: You can try and pull one of those spaghetti strings out but it’ll be all tied up with a hundred others and you’ll never untangle them.

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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