PORTLAND, Maine — President John F. Kennedy is rumored to have said that Washington is famous for its Northern charm and its Southern efficiency. This has never been more evident than now, when the hard facts of winter drive the district’s citizens to depend on government services more than usual.
This year, it isn’t quite like the bad old days when Mayor Marion Barry worked feverishly from his “snow command center” in Miami until the spring thaw would clear the District’s streets. You could even say that this year we have the opposite problem — an overzealous and wasteful approach that makes just as little sense and represents government at its worst.
On Thursday, I emerged from my house to see that Second Street had turned pure white. I have awoken to many a snowy morning before, but this time something was different. The street was covered in white, but the grass was still green.
In fact, the snowfall had not even come yet. In anticipation of an inch of snow that afternoon, after they had already closed most area schools, some genius had the idea of putting down about a half-inch of salt, so thick that it looked like snow. When I reached my office and tried to brush off some of the salt, I surmised that the District’s cobblers, tire salesmen, and dry cleaners had pooled together and hired a lobbyist to make this happen. (Or perhaps Mayor Williams’s brother-in-law owns a salt mine?)
Even this is not as bad as the story of Second Street’s sidewalks. For what feels like forever, we’ve had construction ongoing on my block that has involved tearing up the sidewalk immediately behind the Supreme Court. I noticed, with some dismay, that the walkway was built over the summer, then destroyed, then built again, then destroyed again. This all happened within months.
The friendly construction workers explained that the first time someone decided that the new sidewalk was the wrong color. The second time the sidewalk was built, someone decided that it was the wrong texture. Now they’re halfway done with the third incarnation of what must be the most expensive sidewalk in Washington — I hope the aesthetes are happy this time.
(The second most expensive sidewalk in town is just a block away, across from the Library of Congress. They only built and destroyed that one once this summer.)
The amounts involved in the projects on the Hill may be small, but they are illustrative of something much larger that teaches us a lesson about government. Government is not an inherent evil, but it is the next best thing.
When government chooses to undertake a project, it usually has little to do with its necessity or urgency. I noticed this on Friday when I took exit 7 from I-295 here in Portland. The exit has nothing wrong with it right now, but that didn’t stop Congress from appropriating $15 million this year to “improve” it.
When government handles a project, it almost always ends up being a mess. The almost criminal waste of taxpayers’ money on my block is absolutely nothing compared to the Capitol Visitors’ Center project on the next block over. The center, which will consist of a huge underground monument and museum, is now projected to cost a bit under $600 million — that’s nearly seven times the original estimate. It was originally scheduled to open in May 2005, but now it will open sometime in 2007, if we are lucky.
When government intervenes in economic activity, it doesn’t create jobs, and it always creates inefficiencies. Witness the 7.5 billion-gallon ethanol mandate imposed on drivers by this year’s energy bill. It means that you will pay more at the pump and be forced to use tainted gasoline that pollutes more, just so that you can subsidize the unprofitable growing of corn in fields that should be developed, or at least allowed to lay fallow. If this government-created inefficiency were purged from the market today, Americans, and particularly American businesses, would pay less for gas and have more money for investment and job creation — and the jobs created would be far more useful than that of surplus agriculture.
When government gets involved in business, it inevitably picks winners and losers in such a way that most people lose. Our moderate Republican President, George W. Bush, imposed steel tariffs in 2002 in order to save a failing U.S. steel industry. This apparently well-meaning act had three important results. First, domestic industries that used steel felt the crunch of artificially high prices. As General Motors continues to lay off employees on its long, slow march to insolvency, the President should consider his role in its demise. Second, foreign countries retaliated against American-made goods, forcing the President to back off from the tariffs. Third, the steel industry is failing anyway, and probably nothing will save it this time. For all his efforts to curry favor, Bush didn’t even win Pennsylvania in the last election.
As we watch President Bush move us further in the direction of European socialism, Washington conservatives are now lamenting the death of limited government in a number of columns and thoughtful articles. The next Republican nominee for the presidency has to believe in this principle, or our nation will never recover its freedom or its greatness.
President Reagan, inheriting a terrible economy, approached the problem boldly, rejecting the traditional idea of solving it with further government interference. His first inaugural address contained the famous truth that conservatives must now rediscover:
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.
If Republicans do not return to this credo in time for the 2008 presidential nomination battle, they will have lost their mandate and their moral authority to rule. But if they don’t discover it before the 2006 election, they may lose their grip on power as well.
David Freddoso, a native of Indiana, is a political reporter for Evans and Novak Inside Report.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire