What's Worse Than Big Government?


"I recognize the restrictions of the present budget, and I welcome the challenge to do more within those constraints…throwing dollars doesn't solve the problem."

Pretty conservative stuff. It wowed even Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah), who said the speaker "might have accidentally been quoting one of my speeches." Ted Kennedy—yes, the quote is his—has gotten budget deficit religion. And he isn't alone.

The people who've tried for years to bring us the ultimate welfare state—socialized medicine, guaranteed incomes, and so forth—are now preaching the virtues of controlling government spending. But don't get too excited. This is bad, bad news.

Big-government lovers haven't gotten tight, they've just gotten sneaky. Their goals haven't changed, and they're still playing with other people's money, only now they won't admit it. Their latest trick is to create new programs by passing laws forcing employers to do what the government doesn't want to foot the bill for. It's as old as income-tax withholding and just as insidious. A business hires someone and, presto, it's a social worker—or a cop.

This newest round of employer-based welfare started with a little-noticed law passed last year. The law requires employers to sell group health insurance to former spouses of employees and to unemployed workers, including those who quit. It increases companies' administrative expenses and—because it encourages high-risk people to sign up for insurance—tends to raise insurance costs, as well. But, to Congress, it was cheap. "We're trying to find low-cost ways of helping people, and this is one of them," a House aide commented at the time.

That statement pretty well summarizes the current attitude in Washington—"costs" equal "government costs" and employers come for free. Above all, the government knows what's best for management and labor alike. (Interestingly, unions generally oppose mandatory benefits, arguing that their members should bargain for what they want, not what Uncle Sam thinks they should have.)

Congress didn't stop with merely forcing employers to sell insurance. Now that the Democrats have regained control of the Senate, Kennedy is once again pushing his favorite cause—national health insurance, with a "private enterprise" twist this time. He wants to make all employers provide health insurance.

As Joseph Califano, Jimmy Carter's Health and Human Services secretary, put it at a recent Senate hearing: "What we need is a minimum health-care law just as we have a minimum wage law. Let's simply require that each employer assure its employees of a minimum level of health care—physician treatment, hospitalization, preventive services for the employee and his or her family." Look, ma, no new bureaucrats, no new taxes.

But also no new jobs. And fewer old ones. That, of course, is what hidden taxes on employers end up producing. And, make no mistake about it, mandatory health benefits are new taxes. They take money from businesses and use it as Kennedy & Co. see fit. That means less money for expansion, for raises, for new jobs, for improving "competitiveness."

Unfortunately, this fad of "simply requiring" programs too unpopular to get through Congress with the price tag attached goes beyond health insurance. Social engineers of all stripes are trying to force employers to join their causes.

Kennedy himself is pushing for an increase in that old standby, the minimum wage. One fan of the measure, quoted in Insight magazine, called the increase "one thing [Congress] can do for the working poor without raising the federal deficit." Supporters fail to note, of course, the cost that such an increase would levy on both employers and employees, some of whom would undoubtedly be fired to cut costs.

Another "cost-free" social program would require employers to give workers with new babies up to 18 weeks off, with full benefits and a guaranteed job on their return. The government wouldn't compensate employers for those benefits or for temporary help. And, like most such programs, the burden would fall especially hard on smaller companies. It would also make businesses think twice before hiring likely parents. But, to its supporters, the bill looks cheap.

While liberals are trying to create a socialist state in the guise of private enterprise, conservatives are trying to turn businesses into police auxiliaries. Not so long ago, the Reagan administration was urging all employers to give workers drug tests; only the Constitution stood between this jawboning and legislative action to require such tests.

Equally chilling and with more real effect, the new immigration law forces employers to check the papers of all new workers. This law not only enlists employers as involuntary immigration police but also adds yet another bureaucratic step to the process of hiring a new employee.

Conscripting employers in the war on poverty, the war on drugs, or the war on illegals is wrong, stupid, and certainly not cheap. Worst of all, it is hard to abolish—for the very reason that it doesn't increase the deficit or require an appropriations bill every year.

What's worse than big government? Big government masquerading as your boss.