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Abolish the Nonessentials

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THE POMP AND ceremony surrounding George W. Bush’s nomination of new department heads is now complete. The discussion and debate now center on the qualifications of each of the new nominees. But who is asking the crucial question: Rather than appointing the best-qualified people to run the various departments, why not simply abolish the departments themselves?

After all, wasn’t this what the much-vaunted Republican Revolution of 1994 was all about? Having won control over both houses of Congress, didn’t Republicans tell us that they intended to abolish the departments of Education, Commerce, and Energy and a host of other nonessential departments and agencies of the federal government? Didn’t they tell us that the time had come to dismantle not reform, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society?

Alas, it was the revolution that fizzled before it even got started. And what was the excuse the Republicans gave us for their failure even to pursue their goals? “President Clinton will simply veto our bills and so we shouldn’t even try. O! if only we had a Republican president!”

Well, with Republican control over both houses of Congress and with a Republican president, why not do some abolishing and dismantling now? Why not seize this rare opportunity to rid our nation of immoral and destructive welfare-state and regulatory programs, along with the heavy taxes that pay for them?

Why do we need such departments as HUD, HHS, Labor, Energy, and Commerce? All they do is receive and spend money that has been taken from the taxpayers by the Internal Revenue Service (another one that deserves the chopping block) and interfere, through regulation, with the peaceful activities of the American people.

Thus, I ask again: Why are they needed? Why is it necessary (and moral) for government to take money away from people to whom it belongs in order to have bureaucracies give it to people to whom it does not belong? Why is it necessary (and moral) for government to interfere with the mutually beneficial, peaceful relationships that exist between people?

In arguing for a tax cut, Bush says that people should be able to spend more of their own money. Well, if it’s really their money (which it is), why shouldn’t they be free to spend all of it rather than just a portion of it? Why should government have the power to decide how much of their money they will be permitted to keep and spend on themselves and how much bureaucrats will be able to spend in the form of political largess?

For decades, Republicans and conservatives have relied on their tried-and-true mantra of “free enterprise, private property, and limited government.” You can see it on their stationery. You can hear it at their conferences.

But what they never do (and cannot do) is reconcile their free-market bromides with their support of nonessential departments, agencies, and bureaucracies of government that have proven so destructive to the liberty and well-being of the American people.

After all, let’s face it: these nonessential welfare-regulatory departments are nothing more than a classic embodiment of the socialistic central-planning paradigm that has failed all over the world: government bureaucrats planning, in a top-down, command-and-control fashion, the peaceful activities of tens of millions of people.

(One of my amusing experiences during my visit to Cuba a couple of years ago was seeing the buildings that housed the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the real reason that Americans are prohibited from traveling to Cuba is that they might discover that such agencies are inherent to a socialist, not a free-enterprise, economic system.)

The Department of Education

Let’s consider, for example, the U.S. Department of Education. Why in the world does the federal government need to involve itself with the education of people’s children? The justification for federal involvement in such an important and personal area of life is that state and local governments have failed to do the job of educating children and, therefore, that federal guidance (and control) are now necessary. (The failure of public schooling is apparently also the reason that parents can’t be trusted with the educational decisions of their children — unfortunately, most of them are products of these government schools.)

But if government schooling has failed at the state and local level, why should we believe that the federal government will prove to be any more successful? Aren’t the feds the people who gave us the Postal Service and the veterans’ hospitals?

What Bush and his compatriots, both Republican and Democrat, fail to recognize is that the failure of the educational system is inherent in government itself, or more accurately in the combination of school and state. What they fail to recognize is that the only real solution to the educational debacle is a totally free market in education, which means ridding the educational arena of all levels of government — local, state, and national.

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether Bush gets the finest public-school superintendent in the country to run the Department of Education. No one can make government schooling succeed. I repeat: No one! I emphasize: The answer is not, as many conservatives suggest, “to get the federal government out of education and leave education to the states and localities.” Why? Because, again, the problem is inherent in central planning itself. Central planners, whether at a national, state, or local level, cannot make central planning succeed, and certainly not in the area of education. A government system of education is doomed to fail, regardless of whether the politicoes and bureaucrats who run it do so at the local, state, or national level.

Thus, what we need to be talking about in this country is why we need any state involvement in education (including vouchers). If parents have decision-making authority over their children in the areas of clothing, religion, food and drink, dating, and learning a language, why shouldn’t they have decision-making authority over the equally important area of education? And if the free market produces the best of everything (which it does), then why wouldn’t it produce the best education possible?

What’s the real reason for state involvement in education? Political power and indoctrination. This was one of the first lessons I learned as a kid. My hometown of Laredo, Texas, was a Democratic stronghold. In any presidential election, our local political machine could guarantee — I repeat, guarantee — a bloc of several thousand votes for the Democratic presidential candidate (a point made by Theodore H. White in his book The Making of a President 1960).

I asked my father, who was actively involved in the local political machine, how such a guarantee could be made. He explained to me that at the core of the bloc was the local school district. Every teacher, principal, and janitor believed, rightly or wrongly, that if he didn’t vote the “approved way,” his contract might not be renewed. And everyone believed, rightly or wrongly, that his vote was being monitored by the machine.

Indoctrination is, of course, the other reason governments all over the world have historically controlled the education of children. What better way to create a mass of good little citizens who support government control over the peaceful aspects of their lives while honestly believing that such control is “freedom and free enterprise”?

A free market in housing for the poor versus HUD

Consider another example: HUD, the infamous Department of Housing and Urban Development. It probably would be difficult to come up with a better example of a corrupt government agency. Bribes. Payoffs. Favoritism. But of course, it’s all justified under the standard rubric of “helping the poor.” In fact, if anyone has the audacity to question any public-housing project in the country, even if it entails bribes and payoffs, the opponent is immediately hit with “You hate the poor! You’re a racist!” in the hope that opposition to the project will immediately cease.

HUD officials pulled this type of junk on several of my friends and me when we opposed construction of a public-housing project when I lived in Laredo many years ago. HUD officials announced that the project would be constructed adjacent to a new middle-class housing area in Laredo, where hundreds of us who were starting out in life had just purchased homes. All of us knew, of course, what would happen to our housing values with that project next door. We opposed its construction.

Immediately, HUD officials hit us with their standard bromides of hating the poor and being racists. The only problem was that 99 percent of the residents in this new area were of Mexican descent. And equally interesting was the fact that most of the residents had grown up in poor families in some of the poorest areas of town. For example, my next-door neighbor had grown up in a public-housing project. No one, except HUD, took exception to the fact that these children had broken the bonds of poverty and were buying middle-class homes. In fact, their parents, who were still living back in the barrios, were pleased and proud at the economic success their children were enjoying.

We discovered that HUD was paying $1 million more for that tract of land than they would have had to pay for the same size tract in another part of town, which seemed somewhat unusual to us. So we rounded up a few thousand dollars and bought a half-page ad in the Washington Post that thanked the taxpayers of America for their $1 million gift. The resulting publicity caused a congressman to invite me to testify on the matter before his committee. But the HUD tentacles were long and powerful. The invitation was squelched. The project was built and it stands to this day, a permanent monument to government’s love of the poor, needy, and disadvantaged — and its omnipotent power over the American people.

The irony is that public housing is actually an attack on the poor. When I was a young lawyer in Laredo, I represented a young couple who was living in a public-housing project. (Ironically, my grandfather, an admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was responsible for the building of the project in the 1930s, the very first such project in Laredo.)

My clients explained to me that if they made too much money, the government would kick them out of their home and force them to find a private dwelling. Thus, if they tried to do well and save up a nest egg to buy a home, they would be kicked out before the nest egg could grow very large. How’s that for a great economic incentive? How’s that for loving the poor?

Unfortunately, over time, people would simply grow accustomed to being taken care of in this fashion and just settle in with the knowledge that they would never break the bonds of poverty. Sometimes generation after generation stays in these government housing projects, many of which, as everyone knows, ultimately degenerate into government-owned centers of drugs and violence. In Laredo, public-housing residents could safely be counted on to vote Democrat, for fear of being kicked out of their government dwellings by Republicans, who, as everyone knew, hate the poor.

What would happen if we simply abolished HUD (which is exactly what we should do)? “O! the poor would no longer have housing.” Balderdash and nonsense! It’s the myth that continues to perpetuate the “need” for HUD and public housing for the poor. Actually, the best thing that could ever happen to the poor is a totally free market in housing.

During the time that I was representing the young couple who lived in the public-housing project, I was also representing a very successful homebuilder in town. But he wasn’t like most builders. Guess what he built. Yes, housing for the poor! Because he loved the poor? Maybe so, but that certainly was not my impression as to why he engaged in this type of work. This guy loved to make money, and as far as I could tell, this was his principal motivation for building low-cost housing for poor people.

Being an opponent of public housing, of course I was fascinated by my client’s line of work, and so I asked him to explain the process by which he constructed his apartment complexes. He explained to me that the entire solution to low rental prices lay in keeping construction costs down to an absolute minimum. Thus, for example, he would travel into Mexico and purchase anything he could find at dirt-cheap prices — lumber, pipe, interior decorations, and perhaps even a little illegal labor.

His apartments were certainly not anything luxurious — far from it. But there were two things of importance: One was that the rental price was extremely low, enabling “entry-level” people to have a place to live while they were getting started in life. Second, unlike their public-housing counterparts, the tenants were not restricted in the amount of money they could earn. And once they earned a nest egg, they could move out and upward, which they did.

Thus, my client was providing an invaluable service to the poor, even though his motivation may very well have been nothing but greed. It was a classic example of how the free market causes someone to serve others in the process of serving himself.

Unfortunately, however, over the years much of the low-cost housing market in the United States has been destroyed by HUD and its “free” and “low-cost” housing for the poor. It’s another perverted consequence of government programs that purport to help people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

What should be done with HUD and public housing? Abolish the agency. Totally divest the government of all ownership interest in the housing — that is, privatize the housing entirely by placing legal title in private hands. And leave housing totally to the free market, not only to profit-seeking entrepreneurs but also to groups who build housing for the poor as a charitable (or profit-making) activity.

Freedom and free markets

Unfortunately, like so many people around the world, President Bush believes that the secret to making central planning succeed is to find “good people” to run the departments. In so doing, he, like so many others, fails to come to grips with the uncomfortable truth: the defects of central planning are inherent in the socialist paradigm itself. No one, not even Americans, is capable of making central planning succeed.

So, what’s the alternative? The alternative is “free enterprise, private property, and limited government.” Abolish all nonessential welfare-state, regulatory departments and agencies at all levels of government and let the free market provide and govern education, housing, charity, religion, labor relationships, commerce, energy, and all other peaceful activities in our lives. In other words, what George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans need to do is apply the principles of freedom and free markets rather than just preach them. And what more opportune time than now?

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.