Magazine | October 19, 2009, Issue

Bridge to Nowhere Good

Single-payer . . . public option . . . cap-and-trade . . . No, wait, is that health care or something else? It’s all so complicated, isn’t it? Which is the point. It’s so hard to follow we have to leave it to our betters — i.e., Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi — to follow it for us. They don’t really follow it, either, but, while they may not actually write the legislation or even read it, they do have vast retinues of highly remunerated underlings tasked with reconciling the competing claims of various interest groups. And thus the republic, after a fashion, survives.

Health care isn’t really that complicated, not for you and your dependents. To be sure, if you need a particular operation or course of treatment, it can require a four- or five-figure sum. But, in the course of his life, the average American makes many four-, five-, and even six-figure purchases: They’re called, just to cite the obvious examples, cars and homes. Very few of us stroll into the realtor’s with an attaché case containing a quarter-million dollars in small bills. Yet, remarkably, most of us manage to arrange the acquisition of houses and automobiles without routing the transaction through some vast federal bureaucracy. If you attempt to design a system for hundreds of millions of people, it’s bound to be complicated. Ask your nearest Soviet commissar, whose five-year plans we now seem to be emulating in both their boundless optimism and their entirely predictable consequences. 

A few weeks back I mentioned a couple of bridges in a neighboring town of mine, both on dirt roads serving maybe a dozen houses. Bridge A: The town was prevailed upon to apply for some state/town 80/20 funding plan, which morphed under the stimulus into some fed/state 60/40 funding plan. Current estimated cost: $655,000. The town’s on the hook for 20 percent of the state’s 40 percent — or $52,400. There’s no estimated year of completion, or even of commencement, and the temporary bridge the town threw up has worn out.

Bridge B: Following their experience with Bridge A, the town replaced this one themselves, in a matter of weeks. Total cost: $30,000.

Government is simple provided two conditions are met: You do it locally, and you do it without unions. The first is the reason America is one of the few large countries that haven’t disintegrated. If it were as centrally governed as the USSR or Yugoslavia, it would have busted up in the early 19th century. And while the Obama administration is certainly testing that proposition to the limits, they’re hardly starting from scratch. I’m a big fan of Laura Bush, and found her utterly charming on the one occasion we met, but I can think of no good reason taxpayers should fund a “Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program.” Sample disbursement: $420,000 to the State Library of Illinois to fund a program to help its employees master “social networking” tools such as Facebook and Blogger. Across the land, every illiterate and innumerate third grader can master Facebook and Blogger without getting the best part of half a million taxpayer bucks. But apparently it would be unreasonable to expect a state library to get the hang of it without a massive federal program. What is it the eco-bores say? Think globally, act locally. Yet the global thinking is intended to impede genuine local action — or, at any rate, distort and corrupt its motivations.

The other obstacle to effective localism is unionization. The relative strength of organized labor is the key difference between America and most other developed nations: According to a Fraser Institute report, the least unionized state in America is North Carolina, at 3.9 percent, whereas the least unionized province in Canada is Alberta, at 24.2 percent. But, whatever the arguments for private-sector unionization as a protection against the robber barons of capitalism red in tooth and claw, there is no justification whatsoever for public-sector unions. After all, government is a monopoly: Even if it goes bankrupt, it’s never going to go out of business, much as one might long to see the “Final Liquidation! Everything Must Go!” shingles hanging in the windows in Sacramento and Albany. A snapshot of America in the 21st century would show a motivated, can-do small businessman working round the clock till he’s 78 to pay for a government worker who retires at 52 with pension and other benefits the private-sector schmuck could never dream of. That’s why Big Government produces no economies of scale. The bigger the government the more everything it does costs, whether it’s a Facebook workshop in Illinois or a bridge in New Hampshire.

The metastasization of the public-sector workforce eventually becomes an existential threat to democracy. One in every eight workers in New York State — or 1.2 million — is a unionized government employee, and thus a reliable vote for the Democrats, the Party of Government. Recently I heard Herbert London of the Hudson Institute put it this way: On the first day of any Empire State election campaign, the Democrat starts with those 1.2 million votes and the Republican starts with zero and attempts to play catch-up. It’s hardly surprising very few do.

Building a bridge is easy and affordable: America’s settlers did it all the time. What makes it complex and unaffordable is statism. A couple of seasons back, the preferred shorthand for government waste was “Bridge to Nowhere.” In fact, the bridge leads somewhere quite specific, and, if you don’t like where it’s headed, you’d better do something about it before we’re any farther across the river.


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

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