How Big Government Makes Life Worse

Another day, another story of government waste, fraud, or abuse.


Occupy Wall Street protesters are reminiscent of writer R. Emmett Tyrrell's criticism of radical feminists: They don't know what they want, but they want it very badly. On May Day, the protesters tied up the streets of Oakland, San Francisco, and elsewhere. They are mad as hell and they are not going to take it any more, although it remains unclear what, specifically, they are angry about.

I am not particularly annoyed by the overall protests. It's an American tradition to take to the streets. These folks need an economic lesson at the very least, and none of us should tolerate violence or destruction. But many of the Occupiers appear more open to ideas than our state legislators, who continually express similar ill-defined anti-corporate sentiments. To those who run California's grotesquely large and bumbling state government, the problem always is the same: the private sector, a good bit of which is fleeing to other states. 

A new ad on a major Bay Area radio station is recruiting high-tech employees for positions in Detroit. Talk about insults. San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and wretched, cold Detroit is going to seed, literally. Michiganders talk about rural sprawl rather than urban sprawl—so many neighborhoods have been abandoned and bulldozed that farms are sprouting within the city limits. But despite the fantasies of Gov. Jerry Brown and his fellow Democrats, people will indeed leave this magnificent place for less-desirable locales to pursue better economic opportunities.

Not everyone lives on a trust fund or works for, or is retired from, the government, which, these days, is more lucrative than having such a fund. A recent San Francisco Chronicle column explained, "When it comes to city worker payouts, forget the old $100,000 club or even the $250,000 club—the new elite among San Francisco's civic workforce are those who got more than $500,000 in pay last year." Apparently, it's impossible to exaggerate how wasteful California governments have become.

I heard that radio ad after returning from Austin, Texas, where the locals talk about the sea of Californians moving to their pro-growth (but attractive, friendly, and hip) locale. California officials remain in denial. They promote bills that shift more money from the private economy to the state, which promptly squanders it as quickly as possible. They mock Texas, which lures our most energetic workers and laughs all the way to the state treasury.

As an example of misplaced priorities, California's Democratic legislators say they have no time to deal with the pension crisis, busy as they are creating new rules, regulations, and programs. Their big idea was to create a new mini-Social Security system. In their view, the problem isn't an unaffordable and unsustainable public system that lavishes huge payouts on union members, but a too-stingy private one. That's almost too goofy to mock, given that the private system isn't destroying public budgets. That proposal epitomizes the thinking in Sacramento.

There is nothing perfect in this world, so the private sector will always be afflicted with imperfections borne of the human condition. In the private world, we have to pay our own way—there is no mechanism to live off of the fruits of others, which upsets those who are frustrated that they cannot have everything they want as quickly as they want it

All great advancements in affluence have come from the private realm, although some government is necessary to provide the backdrop to all of this through the administration of a legal system and construction of infrastructure. We know the wretchedness found in government-dominated societies. Most of what American governments do these days strays far outside those boundaries, but I've sensed no area of our economic life that our state's leaders would not subject to government control.

Entrepreneurs take risks. They often fail, but they sometimes make great strides forward. Government employees go to jobs where they cannot be fired except in the most extreme circumstances. They regulate us and provide "services" few of us want. They retire at young ages with pensions that make them the envy of their neighbors. They consume an ever-larger share of the money earned by those who take risks and create growth. Then their unions lobby for more government. And our fellow citizens willingly vote for the politicians who perpetuate this system.

These lessons should be obvious in the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they seem forgotten and not just in California. The unions protesting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's reforms have been shockingly bold in their hard-left rhetoric and clenched-fist symbolism. Whereas the Occupy protesters are a straggly group of powerless young people and vagrants, the radicalization of the union movement is something that should cause worry.

Every day, we read the stories of malfunctioning government agencies, of government waste, fraud, and abuse. Journalist H.L. Mencken quipped that all government is evil and efforts to improve it therefore are a waste of time. Maybe he exaggerated, but there is little hope in reforming government—the only solution is cutting it back. Yet legislators believe in this magical thing called government. They provide new funds and create new agencies to solve problems.

Then out of nowhere a newspaper will expose how that agency really works, and everyone pretends to be shocked. For instance, the Sacramento Bee recently reported how the federal Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services really operates, which "has accidentally killed more than 50,000 animals since 2000 that were not problems, including federally protected golden and bald eagles; more than 1,100 dogs, including family pets."

The problem is not with one agency, but with the vast expansion of federal and state government, which takes our money and freedoms and leaves a path of destruction wherever it goes. Sure the Occupy protesters are annoying. But the real surprise is why the rest of us aren't at least as angry as they are.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.