CHRISTMAS IS THE TIME of goodwill, when everyone thinks of giving. And giving their own money, not other people’s money. Even in Washington, D.C. But in Washington, at least, Christmas is probably the only time of the year when anyone thinks about spending his own money.
Every year government outlays rise. The steady increase in government expenditures is constantly justified on the basis of “compassion.” In its rush before the recent election to be compassionate to farmers after agriculture prices fell, Congress simply ignored its own budget targets passed in previous years. Untold billions more are spent annually to demonstrate compassion for the elderly, compassion for the sick, compassion for disaster victims, and compassion for anyone else lobbying for a place at the federal trough.
Of course, however civic-minded America’s legislators purport to be, most are not unaware of the possibility of winning votes, which helps explain why their professed generosity extends to huge aerospace concerns, small liquor stores, yacht owners, labor union executives, and any interest group with a letterhead and at least three members.
Still, the desire to be compassionate undoubtedly affects some votes. It certainly helps explain why congressmen overwhelmingly regularly vote to give away billions of their constituents’ money to residents of flood plains who choose not to purchase flood insurance. Even many supposedly sober fiscal conservatives believe that compassion requires them to say yes to Uncle Sam as all-around Sugar Daddy. Indeed, earlier this year scores of good Republicans voted to create a $1.25 billion loan program to subsidize direct satellite TV for rural Americans who lacked access to local broadcast shows.
Compassion is such a powerful motivator because it trumps other arguments. A program may be inefficient and wasteful, create perverse disincentives to self-help and work, reward improvidence and carelessness, and deprive others of money that they have earned. But who wants to be uncompassionate, let alone look uncompassionate to voters, by saying no?
The problem with compassionate legislating is not that compassion is bad, but that legislative compassion is not compassion. There is, in short, nothing compassionate about giving away other people’s money.
Not that it is only national politicians who behave this way. A few years ago the Washington, D.C., city council voted to provide $150,000 to Bonita Wilson, widow of the recently deceased city council chairman, John Wilson, and to “adjust” his term of service to double the pension benefits that she would receive. Acting Chairman John Ray justified the payments by saying, “Our council chairman died a tragic death.”
In fact, Wilson’s death, by suicide, was tragic. But then, as now, Washington was a city full of tragedy, largely affecting people with far fewer resources than Bonita Wilson. Nevertheless, she, in contrast to most other residents, had important friends with access to public funds — at a time when the city faced a budget gap of $152 million and was laying off workers.
Particularly perverse was the fact that council members decided to start easing the pain of widows with one who had earned a six-figure salary and whose husband had collected more than $80,000 a year. Ray explained that Wilson had heavy debts and no insurance. A family friend noted that the Wilsons survived paycheck to paycheck, preferring living well to saving — or buying even the low-cost insurance offered by the council. In short, the Wilsons were improvident, disastrously so. This, however, only made the need for compassion greater in the minds of council members. Observed Ray, “Of course, we were sensitive to the fact that he didn’t have insurance.” So a “compassionate” city council voted to stick poor residents with the bill.
But none of these concerns, powerful though they were, went to the crux of the issue. Even if the city had been flush with money and Bonita Wilson had been earning poverty wages, the council’s action would have been improper. The money was simply not the members’ to give.
Tax dollars are collected coercively; they are supposed to be used for public purposes, not private enrichment. After being criticized for the council vote, Ray asked, “What were we supposed to do — go around and take up a collection?” The answer, of course, was yes. As University of Texas Professor Marvin Olasky has pointed out, compassion once meant to suffer with the person in need. Over time people have increasingly come to believe that compassion means writing a check. Now legislators — city, state, and national — think compassion is making other people write a check.
In the case of the District of Columbia, the city council’s decision to turn the public budget into a private charity aroused the voters’ wrath and caused Ray and company to drop their $150,000 gift. Congress will curb federal spending only when people send the same message to Capitol Hill: there’s nothing compassionate about spending taxpayers’ money.
But most congressional looting expeditions in the name of compassion are better disguised. Moreover, while most people recognize that stealing from taxpayers to help one person is theft, they don’t understand that stealing from taxpayers to help a group or class of people is also theft.
The problem is fundamentally philosophical, even theological. Ours is a secular age. But faith has not disappeared. Rather, the gods have changed. Today the reigning theology is statism: government has become god, charged with the people’s salvation. Not that this religious experiment has worked very well. What historian Paul Johnson calls “the age of politics” has unleashed untold death and destruction while solving few of mankind’s most vexing problems, such as poverty. To the contrary, all too often it is government policy, usually inadvertently, but sometimes intentionally, that has created and exacerbated social problems.
Yet politicians of all ideological stripes refuse to accept that their time is drawing to a bloody, calamitous close, and therefore continue to fight to preserve their positions. The worst do it by inflaming ancient ethnic passions and demonizing traditional scapegoats — immigrants and Jews, for instance. The more subtle seek support by endorsing “change,” proposing to “reinvent” their institutions, and pledging to offer “meaning” to people’s lives.
It is difficult to predict whether these stratagems will succeed. In the short term they have worked for men as different as Slobodan Milosevic — for 13 years, anyway — and Bill Clinton (for a bit longer, it seems), but the positions of these officials, and of the raft of thugs and mediocrities who run the vast majority of governments around the globe, are hardly secure, as Milosevic has found out, and Clinton may eventually realize.
In the long term most of these people will be consigned to the ash heap of history. The only question is whether they will be alive to see their memories execrated and their monuments desecrated.
Politics based on envy
But, as Lord Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead. Today we have to contend with an age of politics that has not yet fully wound down. And that politics, in the United States at least, has been based increasingly on envy, the desire not to produce more for one’s self, but to take as much as possible from others.
Of course, all of the proponents of the politics of envy proclaim themselves animated by compassionate public-spiritedness. Who in Washington would admit that the higher taxes he advocates will be used to pay off the interest group of the day, whether farmer, corporation, or union? Who would suggest that he has anything but goodwill towards those whom he is intent on mulcting? That’s what makes the label of “compassion” so useful for politicians.
Indeed, the problem of envy has always been much more serious than that of greed. Those who are greedy may ruin their own lives, but those who are envious contaminate the larger community by letting their covetousness interfere with their relations with others. Moreover, one can satisfy greed in innocuous, even positive ways — by being brighter, working harder, seeing new opportunities, and meeting the demands of others, for instance.
In contrast, envy today is rarely satisfied without use of the state. True, some people pull a gun and heist the nearest person’s wallet or purse. But for the otherwise law-abiding, the only way to take what is someone else’s is to enlist one or more public officials to seize land, impose taxes, regulate activities, conscript labor, and so on.
Statism, then, is integral to the politics of envy. Statism has become the basic theology for those committed to using government to coercively create their preferred version of the virtuous society.
The impact of what might at first glance appear to be esoteric philosophizing has been dramatic. Between 1950 and 1990 those supposed evidences of greed, corporate profits and personal incomes, rose 757 percent and 1,870 percent respectively. However, government spending, one of the best measures of envy, grew 3,163 percent. Virtually no human activity today is outside the jurisdiction of politics. What you ingest, where you work, how much you earn, from whom you receive medical care, how you have sex, what people in other lands do — all of these and more are now matters of grave concern to government at some level and often at several.
It is this continuing expansion of the state even as the luster of the age of politics fades that provides us with our most serious challenge today. Of course, the Christmas holidays more than any other time should cause us to recognize that there are things in life more important than politics.
That is not a widely held view in Washington and the capitals of most other nations, however. American opinion leaders spent months in 1993 debating “the politics of meaning,” a philosophy, held by some people of enormous influence, that government can fill people’s every need, spiritual as well as material. This epitomizes the theology of statism and is almost certainly both idolatrous and pernicious, aiding and abetting the expansion of the state into precisely the areas of people’s lives through which they should find meaning.
Christmas means many things. Faith and redemption to Christians. Compassion and generosity to others. None of these can be coerced. To the contrary, all require freedom to exist. Although a free society is not sufficient for a virtuous society, it is necessary for one. Which is why legislators should remember the lesson of Christmas the rest of the year: real giving means giving one’s own, and not other people’s, money.