Reform the “other” welfare


Writing from Little Rock, Arkansas

A recent USA Today editorial (“Hooked on Handouts” July 31, 2006) makes the case for reforming corporate welfare, given the success of “regular” welfare reform:

Most of what the government does could be called welfare, using a very broad definition of the word. It’s not hard to find individuals, corporations, states or communities hooked on one Washington handout or another. The result of this largesse is a society that is unproductively dependent on government support — and politically organized to keep it coming.

Agriculture is a leading example. Supports have become a sad hoax on the U.S. taxpayer. According to a recent report by The Washington Post, the government has handed out $1.3 billion since 2000 to people who don’t even farm. It has sent billions of dollars in drought relief to areas where there was no drought. And, oh yes, it has paid out a staggering $144 billion over 10 years, according to the National Taxpayers Union, 72% of which went to the 10% of farmers with the largest holdings. Such spending is an insult to hardworking, unsubsidized, Americans. Wasteful farm programs should be cut.

The federal budget is replete with hundreds of payments to, and tax benefits for, other politically potent industries. This “corporate welfare” ranges from government-funded logging roads to subsidies for electric utilities. Last year, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, Congress earmarked 15,877 items worth $47.4 billion to specific recipients, many of them companies with well-connected Washington lobbyists.

This not only squanders taxpayers’ money, it also clogs decision-making in the private sector. Rather than making a smart business decision promptly, companies wait to see whether they can make more by delaying and doing something that could be less sensible.

With so much available in the form of government handouts, it is no wonder companies spend billions on lobbying, and that there are scandals.

F.A. Hayek wrote in his book The Road to Serfdom: “As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.” Lobbying scandals are a symptom and manifestation of a government that has too much power and spends too much time rewarding one person at the expense of another.

Is there a solution? Can we persuade the rewarded class to give up their spoils? The economist Walter E. Williams relates this story and solution: “Nearly two decades ago, during dinner with the late Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, I asked him if he had the power to write one law that would get government out of our lives, what would that law be? Professor Hayek replied he’d write a law that read: Whatever Congress does for one American it must do for all Americans.”

It could be that simple.


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