An Old Story of Giving the People What They, Alas, Want

GEORGE F. WILL

March 01, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- The Chicago politician who proudly said he ZTC was not one ''to cast asparagus'' at opponents should be here now. Three kinds of aspersions are being cast at President Clinton's economic plan -- that it is not candid, or coherent, or rooted in American traditions. The first two are true. The third is not, unfortunately.

Rep. Dan Burton's Republican Study Committee notes that Mr. Clinton promises five-year savings of $32 million by freezing spending by the Appalachian Regional Commission, approximately 70 percent of which supports highway construction. But the president says the ''increase in federal-aid highway funding will more than compensate for the reductions necessitated by this proposal.''

Mr. Clinton proclaims a $1.7 billion five-year saving from elimination of the Community Investment Program. But he says ''the new crime initiative proposed by the administration provides substantially increased funding for the social-service and anti-crime programs supported by the Community Investment Program, making this program duplicative.''

He cites a five-year saving of $240 million from termination of the Tennessee Valley Authority community-development program. But ''other much larger programs with similar purposes have been put into place, and are slated to receive substantial increases from the administration's stimulus and investment (read: spending and spending) proposals.''

Mr. Clinton proposes a five-year saving of $142 million from elimination of the Agriculture Department's Cooperative State Research grants. However, ''Another source of funds for projects . . . is the National Research Initiative . . . which is proposed at higher funding levels in 1994.''

Searching for coherence in Clinton's program is akin to seeking geometry in a plate of spaghetti. Last Tuesday the lead headline (page one, column six) in the New York Times was:

Clinton Proposes

Changes in Policy

To Aid Technology

Cheek-by-jowl with that headline was this one in column five:

Clinton to Fight

Foreign Subsidies

The column-six story concerned Mr. Clinton's ''industrial policy,'' four-year, $17 billion plan to get government deeply involved in subsidizing new technologies and businesses. The column-five story concerned Mr. Clinton's complaints, warmly received by Boeing workers, about the industrial policy of the European governments that have subsidized the development of a Boeing competitor in civil aircraft, the Airbus.

The further melding of America's public and private sectors, in the name of industrial policy, will be applauded by those business people who practice a ''pragmatism'' notable for its emancipation from any principle other than short-term self-interest. Some business leaders who, having no principled opposition to collectivism, and resembling bureaucrats more than entrepreneurs, seek profits and security in the genteel socialism of a ''cooperative'' relationship with government.

In the unending argument about what in American life should be public (permeated by politics and the state) and what should be private (determined by market forces), conservatives are predisposed to protect the market's allocation of resources and opportunities. Liberals are predisposed to expand government's scope.

In ''Second Thoughts: Myths and Morals of U.S. Economic History,'' essays published by Oxford University Press for the Manhattan Institute, the late Jonathan Hughes, a Northwestern University economist, wrote, ''Do Americans want Big Government?'' Assuming that in America people get, over time, pretty much what they want, the evidence is that they want lots of government.

Since 1929 government expenditures (federal, state and local) have grown four times as fast as the gross domestic product, federal expenditures seven times as fast. In 1929 private investment was five times larger than the federal budget; in 1991 it was about half as large. Total expenditures (by all governments) in 1929 were 12 percent of GDP; in 1991, 45 percent. In addition, there is the vast regulatory apparatus. ''Someone,'' wrote Hughes, ''wants, or once wanted, each regulatory activity in order to escape from the results of market decisions.''

Big government was born during an era of Republican domination, 1870-1932, before there was a federal welfare state (other than pensions for Civil War veterans). In just 26 years (1887-1913) there came the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve System, the federal income tax.

American individualism, wrote Hughes, has always coexisted uneasily with ''institutions and habits of non-market control,'' a willingness to use government's coercive powers for redistributionist purposes. ''The ease with which we slipped into the modern welfare state, after all, can only be due to something fundamental in our institutional legacy and history.''

Americans have had ''a certain precocity in the use of institutions of democratic coercion from colonial times onward'' -- tariffs, subsidies, monopoly grants to canals and railroad companies (10 percent of the public domain was given in land grants to finance the transcontinental railroads).

Clintonism -- interventionist and redistributionist government; government acting as venture capitalist -- cannot be called novel.

But neither can it candidly be called anything other than an expansion of democracy's coercive side.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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