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Country Life

Leviathan Swallows a Toaster

by Mark Steyn

Recently, in yet another example of the reforming zeal that swept Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger into office, California’s Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair was merged with the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to create a new streamlined, more efficient bureau called — wait for it, stand well back — the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation.

Why not the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, Lingerie, and Gift Wrap? I used to be able to whistle the main themes from the Hungarian Communist-era smash hit The State Department Store (a proletarian operetta, with none of the counts and princesses), but really The State Department Store Regulatory Agency is an even better jest. A Californian reader of mine, standing slack-jawed before the “Permit to Sell Bedding” hanging at the back of his local Wal-Mart, channeled a bit of (misattributed) George Orwell: We sleep soundly in our beds at night because rough bureaucrats from the Bureau of Home Furnishings stand ready to do violence to those who would sell us unlicensed pillowcases. “The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” Pierre Trudeau famously told Canadians, but evidently it does if you’re consummating your same-sex marriage on an unregulated counterpane.

There is a deal of ruin in a nation, but by the time you’ve got a Bureau of Home Furnishings you’re getting awful near the limit. Of all the petty regulatory burdens piled upon the citizen in the Age of Micro-Tyranny, I dislike especially the food-handling licensing requirements in an ever-multiplying number of jurisdictions from Virginia to Oregon that have put an end to such quintessentially American institutions as the bake sale and the lemonade stand. So civic participation withers, and a government monopoly not just of power but of basic social legitimacy is all that remains.

Yet, even as they approach the moment of triumph, there is great peril here for the Democrats. I believe it was Rich Lowry who first noted that, unlike the culture wars of the early Nineties over “God, guns, and gays,” this time round conservatives have succeeded in making big government itself a cultural issue. Yet it goes beyond that. Every day, more and more people understand that there’s not enough money to pay for this stuff, and there never will be — in other words, that the entire shtick is a fraud. That’s an ever tougher sell for Democrats, particularly now that, in the cold gray light of the long morning after, “hope” and “change” are revealed to be merely an abbreviation for a vast overstaffed Bureau of Hope and Change, whose Assistant Directors of Change and Deputy Commissioners of Hope are on a quarter-million per annum and contemplating retirement at 55 from their three-year study group to examine whether we need a new Hope Application Form and Change Permit.

In this election season, if you’re not committed to fewer programs from fewer agencies with fewer bureaucrats on less pay, you’re not serious. I’d say we need something closer to Thatcher-scale privatization in Britain 30 years ago, or Sir Roger Douglas’s transformative Rogernomics in New Zealand in the mid-Eighties, or post-Soviet Eastern Europe’s economic liberalization in the early Nineties. Aside from the restoration of individual liberty, a side benefit to closing down or outsourcing the Bureau of Government Agencies and the Agency of Government Bureaus is that you’d also be in effect privatizing public-sector unions, which are now one of the biggest threats to freedom and civic integrity.

But, if that all sounds a bit extreme and if 2010 is just a slightly-swingier-than-usual midterm, then things are going to get grim very quickly. In my essay a few weeks back (“Welcome to Rome,” January 25), I noted that Europe’s somewhat agreeable decline had been cushioned by America, and that the problem with American decline is that this time round there’s no rising power volunteering to do the cushioning. Because of the American security umbrella, countries like Germany were able to transfer military spending to social programs. Lacking that option for Obamacare, the Democrats propose to “control costs” by refusing to acknowledge them: Medicare-reimbursement levels will be “capped,” which means that an ever greater number of doctors will cease to perform services for which they are not properly remunerated. And wait till we’ve Medicared the rest of the economy.

In an election cycle or two, the demographic balance between wealth creators and state dependents will shift decisively in favor of the latter, further disincentivizing the former from the thankless task of feeding the leviathan. In an economically moribund America, the Age of Entitlement Insolvency will hit sooner rather than later, and pimply burger flippers will rebel or flee rather than prop up entire Florida retirement communities. Faced with a choice between unsustainable entitlements and an armed forces of global reach, the United States, as Europe did, will abandon military capability and toss the savings into the great sucking maw of social spending. That, in turn, will make for not only a more dangerous world but a more vulnerable America that, to modify President Bush, will wind up having to fight them over here because we no longer have the capacity to fight them over there. From the state-licensed, SEIU-staffed bake sale to Armageddon — in nothing flat.

2010 is not necessarily the last but is at least the antepenultimate chance at avoiding this fate. If we choose otherwise, well, we have regulated our bed, and we will have to lie in it.