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This is the government – How may we help you?

By W. James Antle III
web posted June 28, 2004

If you think most of what goes on in Washington is nuts, you might be surprised to learn that the government plans to find out if the same can be said about you. Reports circulated last week that the Bush administration will soon be unveiling a major mental health initiative that will recommend screening every citizen for mental illness. This latest manifestation of the nanny state is called, in Orwellian fashion, the New Freedom Initiative (of course).

Before there is any consternation among those of my readers who look smashing in tin-foil hats, I should point out that this is not some totalitarian project to have enemies of the state declared insane and shipped off to loony bins or labor camps. Instead, it's just a good old-fashioned public health boondoggle, apparently structured in such a way as to line the pockets of the antidepressant and antipsychotic drug producers best known for their generous campaign contributions.

But let me ask one of those nit-picking questions that nobody seems to care about anymore: Where in the Constitution does the federal government get the authority to be monkeying around with mental-health screenings and worrying about whether the population is properly medicated? Today such petty concerns are just supposed to be swept under the rug or the Interstate Commerce Clause. While the Framers envisioned a limited federal government confined to enumerated powers, we instead have a bloated federal government obsessed with the minute personal details of its citizens' lives.

Gone is the concept that government exists to perform a few specific functions. In its place we have a presumption in favor of using coercive collective action to solve any problem that might come up. Mental illness is a problem, therefore according to the prevailing wisdom of our time government must solve it.

This expansive view of government has become so widespread it is no longer even an exclusively liberal conceit. In a speech advocating federally funded marriage counseling for the poor, President George W. Bush – a Republican, mind you – declared, "[T]he role of government is to stand there and say, ‘We're going to help you.'"

Got that? This is what a purportedly conservative Republican believes the role of government is. Not to protect our property or physical persons from aggressors. Not to safeguard our individual liberties. Not to operate a military, courts and police force. Government is supposed to stand there and help us whenever we need it.

It would be nice to think this was an isolated slip of the tongue, but unfortunately President Bush has a long track record of accepting big government. In a Labor Day speech in 2003 he proclaimed, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move." Yet another president strives to feel our pain.

Indeed, it's almost enough to make you long for the days of when our pain was being felt by the president who declared an end to the era of big government. Regrettably, Bill Clinton's view of government was even worse. The only saving grace of his administration was that his party lost control of Congress only two years into his first term.

Naderite lefties despise Clinton because he made peace with some aspects of conservative policy, such as welfare reform and marginal income tax rates that dip below 70 percent. They think that by accommodating political (and economic) reality in this fashion, he sold out the Democratic Party to the corporate powers that be.

While it's true that Clinton Democrats shill for moneyed interests as adroitly as Bush Republicans, a more accurate reading would be that Clinton once again made liberalism – and activist government – safe for the middle class. Before his 1992 victory, the middle class primarily identified liberalism with government confiscating their money, wrecking their children's schools and regulating their lives. Clinton instead introduced activist government on behalf of the middle class rather than the poor, offering them new entitlements and promising to solve their problems with insignificant federally funded gimmicks like school uniforms.

Clinton's rhetoric about government serving the needs of middle-class Americans who "work hard and play by the rules" presupposed that working hard and playing by the rules wasn't enough; middle-class prosperity instead required government intervention. As the traditionalist blogger Lawrence Auster observed, "Clinton's whole schtick was, life is really hard in America, people work hard but they just can't make it, only the government can help them out."

Once you accept the idea that government is primarily a problem-solving agent and that for especially important matters it should be the problem-solver of first resort, all restraints on political power – constitutional or otherwise – automatically go out the window. Government will then be enlisted to solve what any organized interest group considers to be problem, and if you object because you don't believe it is a legitimate activity for government to be engaged in, you will instead be condemned for not caring about the problem.

The best example of this phenomenon was the debate over national health insurance a decade ago. Republicans quibbled with Democrats over the number of uninsured, the cost of the various proposals, the economic impact of employer mandates, whether new taxes would need to be levied. And these objections did ultimately help sink Hillarycare and all the major alternatives. But very few people bothered to raise the question of whether this would have been a legitimate, lawful exercise of government power.

The benefits that accrue from having the government pay for things ranging in importance from health care to mohair subsidies are obvious to the recipients of this largess. Less obvious are the costs; as government grows, it must take more of our wealth and our freedoms.

Freedom and wealth, by the way, that is often lost unnecessarily. There are numerous examples of government failure, given the propensity of the political class to overestimate its competence. There are also many cases where the government gets credit it doesn't deserve. In his book What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, Charles Murray introduces the "trend line test." Take a look at a graph of illiteracy rates, poverty, infant mortality, etc. and you'll often find that significant progress began before any major government intervention.

Ronald Reagan once quipped, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" It's a fear, or at least a well-grounded skepticism, we would do well to reclaim.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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