Frequent commenter Lee called my attention to Dean Baker’s book, The Conservative Nanny State.
It was the political left that originated the idea of government as societal trouble-shooter. Conservatives opposed them. Then they got power and became seduced by the same idea, of using government to promote their own pet causes. That’s how we got the “culture wars.” Those conflicts would have had no political resonance if government were keeping its nose out.
And, of course, once the left had opened the floodgates of government cash to fund their do-gooder notions, everybody else soon queued up with their own buckets to be filled. Why should the left get to have all the fun (and lucre, and power)?
Liberals profess shock and outrage that people (and, to be sure, those perennial bogey-men, corporations) whom they don’t approve of exploit the system. Liberals just don’t see how that’s an absolutely natural consequence of their own ideology – of expanding government’s remit to whatever concerns some ardent advocate can invoke. Of course, the intent was to only advance putatively selfless do-gooderism. But such schemes always serve selfish interests as well. And it’s all too easy to cloak one’s own self-serving huckle in the guise of public interest. Every tax code loophole, every corporate subsidy, bears a veneer of supposed public interest. Even the egregious farm program. Even the infamous mohair subsidy.
These scams endure because the interests that benefit fight fiercely for them, while no one else is affected enough to be motivated to fight back. Yet, in the aggregate, it’s the death of a thousand cuts.
We are a very rich society that could easily fund every reasonable social welfare program for the needy – no problem – were it not for all the non-needy sucking at the public teat and actually crowding out the needy. The needy don’t have power and influence. It’s the non-needy who do.
The left pines for an egalitarian society wherein no one can exploit wealth and power to accrue such undue advantage. Just stating the idea exposes the flaw. Ambition and greed are so integral to the human psyche that no political system can neuter them. Certainly socialism and communism likewise foster elites that milk society for their own advantage. But at least, much unlike those statist systems, a free capitalist model leaves plenty of space for individuals to pursue self-interest through non-state means; and this produces better results for society as a whole. (See Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations).
The answer, then, is not to try to limit government to doing only what’s really good, rather than serving selfish interests. Who, after all, is to be the judge of that? No, the answer is to limit what government does altogether.
As stated before, this will be the great challenge of the 21st century.