Why Fear Big Government?

Who is Afraid of Big Government?

There is no reason to review all the standard reasons why the American people are terrified of an all-powerful federal or state government. The case has been made in thousands of elegant treatises and books, and is best reflected in the Constitution and the written work of the Founding Fathers.

But let me list a few other, less elegantly expressed worries, many anecdotal in nature.

1) Juvenal’s “Who will police the police?”

One of the scariest things about government is its exemption from laws by virtue of its monopoly on lawmaking and enforcement. I see this every day, from the mundane to the profound.

Go to any downtown in America, and one can see how some supposedly efficient, job-creating con-artist once promised a new hotel, stadium, or enterprise zone, then convinced the city council to steal land from some and hand it over to others (e.g., him) -- and left an ungodly mess in his wake.

That power to condemn creates a real paranoia in our own lives. While we can defend our homes from the intruder, there is no remedy against eminent domain, especially once we have lost faith in the collective wisdom of those who flock to political office.

On the more mundane level, this week I saw the following examples of government exemption. A local police car randomly did a running stop at a 4-way intersection (should I have called 911?); a city bus driver (very common) cell phoning against California law (report him to the cop running the intersection?); a city garbage truck spewing trash out its top as it sped down Freeway 41 (call his cousins at the state EPA?).

We are all routinely pulled over for any of the above infractions. But the larger the government, the more its power, and so the more its employees feel that they are royal and exempt from enforcement. In other words, big government creates millions who feel the law does not pertain to themselves. Ask Tom Daschle, Duke Cunningham, Chris Dodd, or Timothy Geithner. The result is an increasingly lawless society.

2) The Power of Envy

Government service offers veritable tenure and steady wages for the price of bypassing the American dream of “getting rich” in the private sector. Most follow the odds and realize that a federal bird in the hand is better than two in the private bush.

Yet legions of government (and often union) employees by needs must audit often far richer others, whether at the IRS, the county planner’s office, the zoning authority, or the state regulator. And here the public auditor can, by virtue of his unassailable position, quite easily stymie his private sector upstart counterpart.

A few examples from my own modest experience: Going into the DMV to deal with SEIU T-shirted employees is to face petty humiliation and impediment. I watched dozens of hurried customers stand in line while bored employees at the window lackadaisically redirected them to other bored employees. The subtext was “You need my form and stamp, so calm down, take a deep breath, and wait on my time. It’s not like I have to work for your rat-race company.”

Two years ago, the IRS sent me an “urgent” letter about supposedly not reported W-2s (one thing I learned from my late mother is never, never short the IRS, and so I usually overpay). My accountant in about 2 minutes showed me how an auditing clerk (or computer) had screwed up. He wrote an explanatory letter.

I worried (I didn’t have the demanded supplemental fee) for about 3 months. And then matter-of-factly, 90 days later another letter arrived — admitting the matter was now resolved and I need not pay anything. No apology or explanation. In other words, a single government official was able to try to extort thousands (I am sure many thousands who get such letters are terrified and just pay the bogus supplemental) without explanation. No one in private business can quite get away with that. (I am sure the employee, who hits a button to print such form letters demanding more money, never has his pay docked when the request is shown to be invalid). When the inanimate gasoline pump claims we must pay for 20 gallons for an actual 10 pumped, the gas station owner goes to jail.

I am all for codes, building inspectors, and plant regulators, but an excess of such investigators quickly creates a priestly class who take their own frustrations out on supposedly better off others.