October 4, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
People understand that when six friends call it a night and get up from the poker table, some have won and some have lost but the total number of dollars in all six wallets is exactly the same as when they sat down. Liberalism needs people to believe that what is true in a living room becomes magically inoperative in a nation—that when over 100 million households, as opposed to half-a-dozen individuals, pass an enormous but still finite number of dollars back and forth, somehow everyone can come out ahead.
In our last letter we considered the constitutional principles of American federalism. In this letter, let us consider an imaginative analysis of the actual working of our federal system, in the hands of the liberalism that has largely determined the relationship between the national government and the states since the New Deal. This is the liberalism that, rubbing its hands together, looks upon the world in confidence that there is a government program for everything—ideally a federal government program (think Fannie Mae and Solyndra, if you like).
Over 50 years ago, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote that the ultimate effect of thousands of government subsidies—to consumers of this and producers of that—was to guarantee that “the skies are black with crisscrossing dollars.” He described this “purposeless pell mell” as the essence of “liberalism on the wing.”
The flocks of dollars migrating pell mell in every direction led Buckley to consider possible reforms, the first one of which aimed at improving welfare programs. We do not here advocate this reform, but share with you Mr. Buckley’s idea because of the light it sheds on one aspect of American federalism today: “Congress,” Mr. Buckley reformingly suggests, “shall appropriate funds for social welfare only for the benefit of those states whose per capita income is below the national average.” This limitation, Buckley reasoned, would significantly reduce “the ongoing incoherence” of the crisscrossing dollars that are blackening the skies above the fruited plains.
One of Buckley’s purposes was to curtail welfare by introducing means testing: “You do not construct relief programs for the benefit of a Rockefeller. By the same token, you should not construct relief programs for the benefit of New York State.” The broader ambition, however, was to place two conservative goals in one another’s service by reinvigorating federalism while curtailing social welfare programs. Buckley understood that although the disordered, wasteful, and ungainly blackening of the sky with crisscrossing dollars served no comprehensible governmental purpose, it was vital to liberalism politically. According to “liberal economic doctrine,” he wrote, “the dollar is virtuously deployed as the distance increases between where it is collected and where it is spent.” The successful proselytization of this doctrine will be realized when the public assumes a “dollar that issues out of Washington, D.C. is spontaneously generated.”
In other words, liberalism requires people to believe that when they get up after a night of poker, they all go home with more money in their wallet than when they came.
Buckley’s proposed reform was meant to disabuse people of this fantasy. Suppose the 21,780 residents of Ashland, Ohio (at the time of the 2010 census) have to vote on a $21,780,000 project to equip the local high school with an Olympic-sized pool, an indoor track, a gymnastic center, and racquetball courts. (A public school in Kansas City, Missouri added these facilities 20 years ago, but only when ordered to do so by a federal judge to settle a school segregation lawsuit.) If they must absorb a tax increase of $10,000 per person, the project is going to have trouble securing majority support. If, however, the state of Ohio announces it will fund these improvements to Ashland High, a tax increase of $1.89 on each of the 11,536,504 residents of Ohio will cover the costs. And if the federal government takes over the project, it can be financed by an imperceptible 7-cent tax increase on each of the 308,745,538 Americans.
If the relation between the city of Ashland and the rest of the United States were the same as that between the city of Rome and the rest of the Roman Empire, this arrangement could work. But Ashland is happily one of thousands of such localities in a republic. Any federal program to add palatial features to Ashland’s public schools will only win approval if it is part of a reciprocal arrangement: the 300 million or so Americans who don’t live in Ashland will contribute to enhance Ashland’s school only if the people of Ashland agree to help pay for enhancing theirs.
The trouble is that there are a lot of public high schools in America. By the time the 7 cents is rung up to pay for swanky additions to each one, there’s a good chance the people of Ashland are going to wind up right back where they started, paying $10,000 apiece for their upgraded high school. Instead of paying it directly and simply, however, they’ll throw the money into a pot in the center of a national table, and 308 million other Americans will each take a cut.
If you think this is an odd way to build a high school swimming pool, you won’t be surprised at the results that follow when the federal government decides to build cheese factories on the moon, a possibility we will contemplate in next week’s letter, when we continue this story.