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Rhinestone Benevolence

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If the Senate doesn’t think perjury and obstruction of justice are high crimes, they could convict President Clinton of bribery. His State of the Union address was nothing if not an attempt to bribe the American people to let him stay in office.

Bill Clinton embodies everything that is wrong with government in the 20th century. We didn’t need the State of the Union address to confirm it.

The 20th century has been the century of government. Consequently, it has been the bloodiest and most brutal time in human history. Americans living in the late 19th century had every reason to indulge the rosiest optimism. They lived at a time when government’s presence was minimal. Taxes were a tiny proportion of income. Freedom, property, and voluntary exchange ruled social relations. Uncoincidentally, living standards and life spans were on the rise. That was no small achievement after centuries of miserable poverty and early death.

But while Americans, and Westerners generally, were enjoying this new world of freedom, a group of intellectuals thought they discovered a better way: rule by government experts. They sold their philosophy as the inevitable next stage of social evolution. But they glossed over an important truth: Everything government does involves the threat of physical force. Whether it’s taking A’s property to give it to B, or dictating the terms of peaceful activities, there is a gun hidden under the compassionate rhetoric and bureaucratic jargon. Those intellectuals won the day, and government grew in scope and power. They bequeathed us two world wars, many lesser conflicts, a great depression, larcenous inflation, high taxes, strangling regulations, and suffocating bureaucracy.

As products of the government’s own apologetic school system, most people have missed this historical perspective. They have no idea there was a time when you could get through a day without encountering a government official or a regulation.

A few years ago, Mr. Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over.” Can anyone doubt that was just another in his long series of lies? His State of the Union address was a blueprint for reviving intrusive government through seductive, rule-laden subsidies.

To grasp how this president sees government-and us-look at his solution to the savings “crisis.” Americans are said to save too little. If you think that is the case, you could call for massive tax elimination to enable people to control their own money.

Or you might do what Bill Clinton does: think of ways to intrude more deeply into their lives. As he told an audience the day after his speech: “What do we do with it [the surplus]? We could give it all back to you and hope that you spend it right.” He rejected that option.

Mr. Clinton instead proposes Universal Savings Accounts. “With these new accounts,” he said, “Americans can invest as they choose and receive funds to match a portion of their savings with extra help for those least able to save. USA accounts will help all Americans to share in our nation’s wealth and to enjoy a more secure retirement.” (Note the collectivist “share in our nation’s wealth.”) Government would give each citizen a sum of money with which to open the account. Then up to a certain point it would contribute more according to how much a given saver contributes.

Since the money the government would kick in has to be forcibly taken from the taxpayers, why not simply repeal taxes?

There’s a simple answer: letting people control their own money frees them from government. Mr. Clinton’s scheme would tether each citizen to the state with its rhinestone benevolence. The government “contribution” will look like a gift from a caring president. People will feel beholden. The racket of legalized plunder will thus be safe yet a little while longer.

The 20th century is nearly over. The era of intrusive, presumptuous government is not. Bill Clinton is seeing to that.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.