Let’s assume, just for the fun of it, that President Obama and all the Democrats in Congress suddenly have an epiphany and declare that their legislative agenda is all wrong. In fact, the Republicans have it exactly right, and starting immediately, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will work hand in hand with their new best friends, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, with the full support of the president, to solve the nation’s problems.
OK, when you quit laughing, think about what would happen in the real world beyond Washington.
I suspect not much to begin with. And afterward, a lot of it wouldn’t be much fun. That’s because, for one thing, undoing decades of bad policy would cause uncomfortable changes for most and downright disaster for some.
Pick a subject, almost any subject, because these days it’s practically impossible to find an area of our lives where the government doesn’t intrude. But let’s keep ideology out of it and pick something neutral, not to mention boring: flood insurance.
Who could be against flood insurance? Well, there’s a catch. Since private insurers won’t write it, the federal government does. But why is it that private companies won’t? Simple answer, really — it’s no way to make a buck. Floods happen regularly, so it’s straightforward to calculate the premiums needed. The problem is that those premiums are unaffordably high, so the government provides the insurance, charging low premiums that guarantee a loss, and makes up the difference from general revenues.
The next time you’re on vacation, admiring those multi-million dollar mansions that line the beaches, remember that they couldn’t have been built without federal flood insurance. Your tax dollars, hard at work. And rest assured that their owners are grateful for your contribution and laughing all the way to the bank.
But now, with the new meeting of the minds, the grand wizards in Washington, will all agree that a program like flood insurance that so obviously benefits the wealthy at the expense of everyone else must cover its own costs. That is, if its existence can be justified at all; there are good arguments for doing away with the program, based on the fact that it encourages building in places we shouldn’t.
Either way, the consequence would be the write-down of billions of dollars in property values, the failure of developers and other businesses and the slow decay of newly impoverished, flood-prone communities, punctuated by the occasional destruction of a beach resort or river town, never to be rebuilt.
Or, maybe not. Economists can argue to their dying breaths that, in the long run, doing away with market-distorting government programs creates a healthier economy with greater opportunity and wealth for all, but the short-term costs to politicians, their arms twisted by every special interest group you can name and many you can’t, would be so great that it’s practically guaranteed that nothing much would happen. So don’t worry, those of you who benefit from this or that spending program or mandate, or feed at the corporate welfare trough — and, truth be told, that’s all of us — unless your pet program is so over-the-top that no one can defend it with a straight face, it’s probably safe.
You can consider that a strength or a weakness of democracy, but I look at it as just one of the unavoidable consequences of a democracy that has decided that its government should no longer be small and strictly limited in scope. Defenders of big government can point to the fact that, over the last 100 years, this nation has grown to be the richest and most powerful ever, and argue persuasively that the growth of government played an indispensable role in that growth.
The problem with the argument is that nations are dynamic things that can’t be looked at in isolation from the rest of the world. Our mistakes may simply be outweighed by the mistakes of others. It’s closer to the truth that we just didn’t screw up quite as badly as Nazi Germany, communist Russia and China, democratic-socialist Western Europe, autocratic Latin America, benighted Africa, and an Islamic world caught between medieval-minded religious zealots and modernity.
The great danger is that we mistake relative success for actual success; that is, we fail to realize that what passes for success is nothing but less failure, and that the only reason we have escaped the worst consequences of our mistakes is that their mistakes had more-immediate consequences.
But that is no guarantee we can escape forever. This is what we should fear, and what we must guard against. Otherwise, the day approaches when our mistakes will catch up to us, and the outcome won’t be pretty.
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is president and general manager of Accurate Machine Products Corp. in Johnson City.