The Blindness of Big Government Democracy

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) appeared at a breakfast hosted by Americans for Tax Reform and the American Spectator on Wednesday, and offered some thoughts on the danger of pursuing short-term solutions to long-term problems, as related by Alexis Levinson at the Daily Caller:

At a breakfast hosted by Americans for Tax Reform and the American Spectator on Wednesday, Sessions pointed to the ways in which easy cuts will be made to pay for things now, leaving the country with the same problems further down the road.

For instance, the proposed increased tax on millionaires, Sessions said, would be used to pay for just one year of the Social Security payroll tax holiday — “and so it’ll take ten years to pay for just one year of that,” he said.

“And by the way,” he added, “that’s the money they’ve been saying that they want to use to pay down the debt.”

“You can’t keep using these things up and then they’re not there,” he said. “A lot of the low-hanging spending fruit is going to be proposed by Republicans to pay for a scaled-down year-end solution, and they’ll be used up too — to fund new spending this year.”

(Emphasis mine.)  This is a recurring theme in almost all of the depressing news of insolvent government we’ve been hearing, both at home and throughout the Western world.  It is the inescapable, fatal flaw at the intersection of Big Government and democracy, and proof why the two should never be mixed.  Big Government democracy is all about the short term, and eventually its nearsightedness will lead it off the edge of a cliff.

It is natural and understandable that people wish to avoid short-term pain, while they’re much more sanguine about long-term problems.  Tomorrow’s bad news looms larger than distant future crises.  When central banks in America and Europe injected liquidity into the global marketplace earlier this week, the stock market soared to euphoric highs, even though the underlying dangers in the Eurozone remained.  There will always be a public appetite for solutions to immediate problems, no matter what the long-term costs might be.  Conversely, few relish the thought of putting themselves through immediate hardship to address disasters lurking months, years, or decades in the future.

Acting individually, people can overcome this tendency, but acting collectively, they almost never do.  Successful people learn the value of making sacrifices to achieve long-term goals.  They convince themselves to reject quick and easy solutions because they know the consequences will come back to haunt them later.  They realize, in short, that there is a cost associated with immediate gratification, and sometimes conclude these costs are too high to bear.

These calculations dissolve completely when politics and Big Government are involved.  There is no perceived cost to short-term gratification, because politicians work very hard to erase such perceptions.  Last year, responding to questions about the impending collapse of Social Security, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in essence that he didn’t see a serious problem right away, and someone should wake him up when it becomes a front-page disaster.  That’s Big Government in a nutshell: zero transition time between normal daily operation and fiery crash.  It’s a jumbo jet that flies six inches off the ground.

Voters are trained to see very little individual cost in offering political support for disastrous nonsense they would never try on their own.  Congress, in turn, passes only obligation forward, never discipline.  The long-term promises contained in something like the Budget Control Act of 2011 are just words on paper.  A promise was made to hold a vote on a balanced budget amendment, but it didn’t have to pass.  The Super Committee was not obliged to accomplish anything, and it didn’t.  There’s still plenty of time to dismantle the automatic “sequestration” spending cuts, and there’s a good chance Congress will.

But when the next Congress convenes, the baseline budget increases from Obama’s wild spending spree will be carved in stone.  All those bloated budgets will have to be funded, or else Congress and the next President will be savaged for making “vicious cuts” in spending, at the expense of government dependents.  Increased spending hires government employees, whose jobs become unacceptable collateral damage when future Congresses contemplate fiscal restraint.  None of this is mentioned when the latest trillion-dollar omnibus spending bill rolls across Capitol Hill, or the next marvelous government program is proposed.

As American society becomes increasingly politicized, it goes blind.  Socializing costs necessarily involves hiding them, and tricking people into thinking something is “free” because nobody can tell who is actually paying for it.  Cut a government subsidy, and you will make the recipients of that subsidy, and their customers, very angry.  When everything is subsidized, nothing can be cut, because no group is willing to accept the “unfair burden” of giving up their goodies.  The same reasoning is recast as heartless greed when people object to higher taxes.

Meaningful tax reform has become nearly impossible due to institutional short-sightedness.  Ask any political consultant the probable fate of a politician who proposes dramatic, growth-oriented reforms that would place the slightest burden on the people who don’t pay income taxes now, even if such a plan would bring great prosperity and higher unemployment in the future.  Every politician who aggressively caters to the short-term fears and appetites of the populace relishes the thought of running against one who doesn’t.

This is all built right into the combination of popular votes and unrestrained government.  Holding elections to select elected representatives in a republican system provides only modest protection (and thank God we at least have that.)  There is still the possibility that bold, charismatic leaders will appear and convince the public to set aside its pressing appetites and fears for the long-term good.  Unfortunately, bold and charismatic leaders who tell them to indulge those appetites have a much easier time of it.

The Left has become increasingly enamored of solving this problem with vastly greater amounts of centralized control.  That’s why so many of them have long been in love with their idealized vision of nations like Cuba.  Increasingly, they’re starry-eyed over China.  Just this week, former SEIU president Andy Stern wrote of “China’s Superior Economic Model” in the Wall Street Journal, suggesting that “the free-market fundamentalist economic model is being thrown onto the trash heap of history.”  The idea is that authoritarian controllers, untroubled by the need to please whiny voters, can make the big, tough decisions for a populace that enjoys the carefully rationed fruits of limited economic freedom. 

Of course, authoritarian controllers tend to be more interested in their own prerogatives than making wise choices on behalf of the whole (talk about “income inequality!”) and it’s not much fun being trapped forever in the lower reaches of the system, where people like Stern and the other China fetishists assume they will never be.  Who seriously thinks someone like Barack Obama would be a better, less corrupt central planner if he had more power, and didn’t have to worry about public outrage over the next Solyndra loan at all?

In a free economy, those who fail to plan adequately for the future go bankrupt.  They learn from the experience, and others learn from their examples.  In today’s politicized economy, everyone and everything is plugged into a system they have been told cannot go bankrupt.  A single, unbearably painful lesson awaits them all, on the day they discover that isn’t true.