How Big Government Undermines Freedom and Prosperity

The dangers of viewing government as the be-all-and-end-all of our society.


After hearing the criticism directed toward golfer Phil Mickelson for his modest comments about California's highest-in-the-nation tax rates causing him to consider relocating, I was left wondering what country we live in. Did you ever have one of those moments?

"If you add up all the federal and you look at the disability and the unemployment and the Social Security and the state, my tax rate is 62, 63 percent," Mickelson said. "So I've got to make some decisions on what I'm going to do." He pointed to "drastic changes" that are driving his decision—an obvious reference to the income-tax hikes California voters placed on millionaires like him. Media and public critics were aghast and mocked this poor rich guy for his complaints.

The spectacle of Mickelson apologizing on Sunday, then doing so a second time later in the week, was the worst part of this spectacle. "I think that it was insensitive to talk about it publicly to those people who are not able to find a job, that are struggling paycheck to paycheck," Mickelson said. To the AP reporter, Mickelson wasn't sufficiently apologetic: "He didn't apologize for what he said, only that he said it."

Mickelson is just trying to get his mind back in golf, so I don't begrudge him for using the lingo that our society requires from the chastened. It's now "insensitive" for a wealthy person to complain about a confiscatory tax rate as long as there are other, less fortunate people out there somewhere. That's not a healthy attitude in a free and prosperous society.

"A generation ago, the vitriol his comments triggered would have been surprising, and somewhat isolated," CalWatchdog's Chris Reed argued. "Griping about taxes used to be something of an American tradition. No more." This attitude, he notes, now comes from the highest level of government.

Consider the president's second inaugural address, which was a celebration of the wonders of government. The Democrats who run our state view private business as something ranging from a blight to a necessary evil that can be endlessly tapped to fund every new program they envision.

If you think the "blight" comment is an exaggeration, consider this: Recently, the California Air Resources Board sent out a press release celebrating a $300,000 fine it imposed on a business. The quotation from CARB's chief enforcement officer included this warning: "All business owners should pay attention to this case." That's like something uttered by a villain in an Ayn Rand novel.

I've always sensed a deep understanding that transcends left and right in America—you can make it big and enjoy the fruits of your labor. During the early days of the labor movement, the hard leftists never made much headway because of that deep-seated idea that, no matter how humble one's beginnings, an American can make it big some day.

Something has changed, even as our society has become wealthier. Sure businesses have to comply with regulations and millionaires need to pay taxes, but somewhere we've shifted from honoring success to envying it, from viewing government as a limited tool to achieve a few necessary things (infrastructure, enforcing the rule of law) to seeing it as the be-all and end-all of our society.

Why is it assumed by these moralistic Affluence Police that the rich are mainly greedy people who spend their money on luxury goods? Charities and non-profits are funded by wealthy people. Real capitalists invest millions of dollars into ideas and often create good jobs in the process. I have no idea what Mickelson does with his money, but it isn't any of my business. Given California governmental attitudes, one can't blame him for looking elsewhere.

For instance, during a recent Capitol press conference, the Orange County Register's Sacramento reporter asked Gov. Jerry Brown about the spending increases in his supposedly austere budget. Brown joked about there being no hope for Orange County readers, according to a Register editorial. Then he mocked "this doctrine that government is the problem," which he said is promoted by the "Orange County Register or whoever all these people are."

At the Capitol, the free market is viewed as an arcane joke. Yet I look at everything government does—at all those programs and bureaucracies and entitlements that Brown and Obama prefer. I see enormous debt, corruption, abuses of power, union-enrichment schemes, shoddy services, terrible attitudes, and an endless sea of scandal and greed. Just read the newspapers.

But the scorn should be expected. The state uses a static model for calculating revenues. It assumes that if you raise taxes by, say, 20 percent that the state will get 20 percent more money. In the real world, people move to lower-tax places or work less or hide more of their income, and the government gets 20 percent of a smaller pie.

If wealthy people keep leaving, then the state will have to pare back its budget. Perhaps the backlash against Mickelson is a sign of desperation by those who understand there might be limits to how many golden eggs the geese keep laying.