It All Depends on Who's Getting the Handouts

GARRY WILLS

April 02, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- Opponents of government handouts often talk as if welfare mothers are the only recipients of such help. But the government gives aid to many people with less pressing needs than a poor woman has in feeding her children.

Take the Western land-use policy that lets people mine government territory, graze their animals over it, get trees sold from it, for less than market prices -- often far less. What makes these miners and farmers entitled to welfare?

The policy did not begin as welfare, of course. It is a late remnant of a long-term policy America began in the 19th century to encourage Western development. From the early days of the republic, people feared an imbalance in the hands-to-lands proportion that meant so much to 19th-century demographers. We had more land than we could use, and too few hands to work it. The solution was to encourage people to go west where the imbalance was greatest. We gave away national wealth in one form to encourage wealth in another form.

What was installed as a remedial policy outlived its occasion. Right-wingers often recite the truth that bureaucracies are self-perpetuating. It is almost impossible to take away from key constituencies a government handout that they have come to consider a right.

President Clinton thought he could do it. He proposed making people who mine government land pay 12.5 percent of their profits to the government -- surely a reasonable request, since the metal belongs to the people of the United States, not to the individual entrepreneur taking the profit.

The same is true of those who graze government pasturage. They take away public property, in the form of animal food, and turn it into private gain.

But the Western interests put pressure on their senators and representatives, who put pressure on Mr. Clinton, who quickly withdrew his proposals.

This dispute settles one contested matter. It has been said that President Clinton is quick to cave in to the demands of liberal interest groups. Apparently he is an equal-opportunity caver-in, since this time he deferred to business interests on the right. He can console himself with the reflection that the enemies of government handouts were those forcing him to keep handing out in this instance.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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