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December 1997
Volume 15, Number 12

Power Grab
by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.

'Seizing power is the essence of government as we know it. It's not as easy as it once was. As public trust in government has plummeted, and resistance to central rule has grown, officials invent ever-new rationales. Here are just a few of the newest benefits the central state promises us if we relinquish more power to Washington:

Government Will Make Us Smarter. The market for learning is among the most distorted--hardly a surprise given more than a century of federal involvement. These very distortions provide a rationale for a parade of fixes, though the political parties disagree on how to "solve" our education woes.

The Democrats want national standards--an idea first proposed by neoconservatives in the Republican Party. The Republicans want school vouchers--a scheme originally concocted by left-liberals seeking to co-opt and thus destroy the private-school industry, at taxpayer expense.

Despite the dispute, the two positions are compatible. If the federal government pays for private education through vouchers, national standards would immediately follow. Indeed, the public would demand them, since people reasonably want some control over where their money goes-- whether in arts, welfare, warfare, or education.

But with national standards comes the abolition of educational innovation, the loss of independence, the imposition of national conformity in thought, and the complete politicization of education. Who doubts that these are the actual goals of the program's architects?

The positions of both parties assume the goal of educational centralization under the control and supervision of federal bureaucrats. This abandons the American tradition in which education is the responsibility of families, communities, and individual states. Both ideas expand egregious policy precedents like the G.I. Bill and the creation of the Department of Education. No one seriously believes the federal government can make kids smarter--quite the opposite. It's merely an attempt to grab power.

Government Will Make Us Healthier. The hullabaloo about cigarettes is not really about health (government, after all, is the leading health hazard; consider war, for example). It's about gaining a new source of revenue. Government is salivating at the prospect of more billions to splurge, justified as an effort to end teen smoking.

But it's not enough that government is attempting to ban a substance used by perhaps a third of the public. Government is also going after the beef industry, which it apparently also regards as evil. For a variety of reasons, left-liberals have long hated the cow.

Dan Glickman, agriculture czar, wants the power to shut down any food processing plant by his own edict, and to impose fines of $100,000 a day on any plant not obeying his orders. His demand came in the days following a Colorado incidence of nine upset stomachs, caused by E. coli. Though the bacteria were never definitively traced to Nebraska's Hudson Plant, Glickman recalled and destroyed 25 million pounds of its beef, leading to bankruptcy and takeover of the plant.

Glickman says the tummy aches were not an anomaly. He would have us believe that the nation's food supply is being poisoned by business moguls who put profits ahead of safety. He can save us from poisoning and disease, but only if he is given totalitarian power to destroy any food business on his personal whim.

Would this do any good? Of course not. No one has a stronger interest in protecting the public from disease than food processing plants. If a company is responsible for poisoning, even in the absence of any government regulatory oversight, it can be bankrupted by sheer market pressure. The pursuit of profit and the pursuit of safety are, in a host of areas from food to air travel, bound up with each other.

What's really at issue is whether the government or the consuming public, together with competitive businesses, are going to determine the winners and losers in the market economy. In fact, increased government intervention has the perverse effect of making food processing less sanitary. Plants are forced to expend resources on obeying dictates, however irrational, as versus serving the public with a quality product efficiently produced.

Government Will Save Our Children. Hanna Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, decried the "politicization of children" all over the Western world. She had seen this under the Nazi regime, where government invoked the interests of children as pawns in its political game. It was true in the U.S. too, she said, where children's interests were invoked as the excuse for overriding states' rights in education (and on these grounds she denounced Brown v. Board of Education, thereby earning the eternal enmity of the left).

Today, the Clinton administration whips up public hysteria about a supposed nationwide epidemic of child abuse. HHS head Donna Shalala demands huge new powers to investigate families, grab children, and pay for foster care. Neoconservatives, including Newt Gingrich, have proposed starting a string of government orphanages to house kids taken away from parents.

In fact, 55 percent of the cases of child abuse these people cite fall under the category of "endangered," meaning no abuse has actually taken place, and only 7 percent refer to actual physical abuse. Meanwhile, two-thirds of 2 million reports of child abuse per year are later dismissed as unfounded. But that doesn't take away the trauma of parents who are publicly humiliated and have their kids stolen, or of children put in government-approved foster "care." Somehow, the statutes against kidnaping don't apply to government.

Also in the name of helping children, in the 1997 budget agreement, Republicans and Democrats eagerly passed the biggest expansion in medical welfare since the 1960s. It allocates some 25 billion tax dollars to buy insurance from private markets for children who don't already receive it from Medicaid. If no insurance can be purchased, government will provide.

Problem: families who presently have private insurance can qualify for the new program when they don't qualify for Medicaid. For every 100 children enrolled in the program, another 70 are likely to drop private coverage, and enroll in the free, tax-paid program instead. Private coverage then becomes more expensive and more restrictive, which further drives people into government arms.

The program also seems calculated to lower the costs of having children for the poor, as if those costs were not artificially low as it is. For years, conservatives have denounced AFDC as the source of the explosion in out-of-wedlock births. There's truth here, but just as crucially--especially for people who think only about the short term--now more of the poor don't have to arrange payment for the medical bills that accompany their children.

Congress allegedly reformed AFDC by giving the program to the states, under federal control. In its place, it has created a new and centralized entitlement that will further socialize the medical industry, harm private companies, and use children for political purposes.

Government Will Make Us Virtuous. Not a day goes by when someone in government doesn't attack the Internet, ostensibly because of filth on the medium, but actually because it is an unregulated source of information. In league with naive religious conservatives, regulators propose that the Internet be subject to political censorship. Government will be able to prosecute individuals for saying things the government doesn't like.

Anyone who knows anything about this medium knows it can't be done. No one knows how large the Internet is, and there is no law a politician could write that will accomplish the goal of policing it. But government would like the power to crush certain groups at will. Passing new censorship laws wouldn't make us more virtuous, but they would grant new oversight powers, so that we could no longer have easy access to politically incorrect information.

Government has used the decline of morals to its own advantage in many ways, even while it has been the largest contributor to the rise of cultural degeneracy. For example, government likes pornography that is paid for by the taxpayers, either through the National Endowment for the Arts or through the U.S. military, the world's largest customer for dirty books, dirty magazines, and dirty videos.

Consider laws against "discrimination" in the workplace. EEOC says that one wrong decision on hiring and promotion should make a company vulnerable to bankruptcy by lawsuit. How can the government know the discrimination is invidious? It pretends to know the intentions of managers. But lacking the ability to read minds, it consults political interest groups on their opinion.

So what's the point of EEOC's crackdown on discrimination? As with education, health, and children, it is mere pretense, an excuse to deprive the owners of property of their authority. It is a power grab, taken at a time when the old rationales for state power are all but exhausted.

The correct way to counter these and other arguments for expanding government power is not by merely demonstrating their futility. It is our primary task to unmask the real intent behind these campaigns, which is not to make us healthy, wealthy, and wise, but to transfer power from us to them. Once we understand that, we will have begun the process of beating them back.


Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

FURTHER READING: Our Enemy, The State by Albert Jay Nock (New York: Hallberg Publishing, 1983 [1935]); On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth by Bertrand de Jouvenel (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1993); "Child Abuse: Threat or Menace?" by Douglas J. Besharov, Slate (Oct. 3, 1996) and "Beware the Real Agenda," New York Times (Aug. 5, 1997).


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