Father Time dos not treat us well. The physical ailments of old age are bad enough but perhaps worse are the mental deteriorations–a kindly Grandma grows witch-like as she enters her ninth decade.
As a practicing political psychiatrist I’ve recently had a case that deserves our utmost attention-a man well-known to everyone who has undergone a remarkable personality disorder transformation that threatens America’s very survival. Normally, patient doctor confidentially would prohibit a public discussion, but, thankfully, his worried family has authorized permission.
The patient is Uncle Sam and this tough old bird, the very symbol of American independence, has now begun to think of himself as Santa Claus. Why, just last week his daughter called to tell me that he had somehow escaped the house and was wandering about handing out gift certificates for free health care, subsidized housing, free cell phones, free school breakfasts and lunches, food stamps and other entitlements to strangers at downtown street corners. Witnesses also saw him aggressively pan-handling Chinese tourists for loans. Fortunately, a neighbor spotted him, called the police and he was safely returned home.
How did this happen? It’s a long story but worth telling. Let’s begin at the beginning. The Founding Fathers knew all too well of what political therapist call the Santa Claus Derangement Syndrome (SCDS). The Founders recognized that this was the Achilles Heel of all Republics-citizens could not control rapacious appetites and egged on by demigods would spend public money like a drunken sailor. And if their gold and silver ran out, and they could no longer borrow, they would just print up paper money and compel its use as legal tender. Eventually, of course, the self-enrichment game would collapse and democracy would yield to anarchy which, in turn, would inevitably bring law and order despotism. Indeed, this oft-repeated pattern was perhaps the most realistic criticism of our new Republic-handing over the power of the purse to ordinary citizens guaranteed ruin.
So, since the people themselves could not reign in their appetites, what would stop the SCDS? For the Founders the answer was in the arrangement of political power, not admonitions to go easy on gorging at the public trough. Restraint would occur despite irrepressible cravings. These imposed constraints are all familiar to anybody who has studied the Constitution but they deserve repeating.
Decentralization, the principle of federalism, was central. In medical terms, this is a quarantine strategy. Yes, an individual state (or town) may go off the deep end financially but the damage would be constrained as the people who created wealth, not just consumed it, could go elsewhere. This was a powerful incentive for fiscal restraint. The federal principle also ensured that people would personally suffer fiscal prolificacy. Want an Olympic-sized pool at the local high school? You-not Washington–must pay for it.
Just read the Constitution. For example, Article I, Section 8 requires that all money drawn from the Treasury must be lawful and given a public accounting (no on-the-the sly spending). Article I, Section 9 forbids states from issuing its own currency unless backed by gold or silver while also preventing the state from impairing the obligations of contracts (the poor often pressured government to void their debts-sound familiar in today’s mortgage crisis?). And until the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, Congress could not tax citizens directly. It could only apportion the tax to the states and states were responsible for the details of raising revenue, a policy putting the onus on closer-to-home state government.
Of the utmost importance, the Founders hobbled the national government from doing anything unless it could secure the cooperation of multiple interests, all of whom occupied positions of veto power and all of whom represented different (and competing) interests. Pit ambition against ambition, as Madison put it. Gridlock, a principle now condemned as antithetical to “progress” was the happy default option under the reasonable assumption that, all things considered, unless the need for action was widely accepted, it was better to do nothing.
Now, with this little history lesson in mind, how do we get Uncle Sam healthy and stop this dangerous Santa Claus nonsense short of institutionalizing the old man? The answer is simple: since you cannot reverse time and restore the previous frugality, just make it more difficult for Uncle to engage in foolish generosity. Let him play-act with the Ho Ho Ho shtick, but organize it in such a way that little of value ever leaves Uncle’s house.
Tell Uncle that it’s wonderful to be Santa Clause but let’s make it a family affair. Create a series of over-lapping committees to decide this generosity and, hopefully people will barely agree on anything. Have one committee to decide beneficiaries, another to decide how much, a third to decide the sources of the funding and a forth to measure the effectiveness of the generosity. Spending requires agreement among everyone. Put all valuables in a far distant safe deposit box. Meanwhile relatives can be hired as consultants and with a little bit of luck, all the noisy and time consuming acrimony will convince the beloved Uncle to instead become a neighborhood sleuth to spy on those who don’t recycle. Surely the inheritance-minded relatives may have a financial stake in keeping Uncle’s estate financially sound.
Yes, this is fantasy, but the lessons of 1787s when the Constitution was drafted remain as relevant as before. Human nature has not changed; do not depend on admonitions, good intentions or pledges; reinvigorate the original system.
Most clearly, return as many programs to states and local control as possible. It’s easy to request “free” goodies from Washington; quite another to get the bill for them. Then lower taxes and with more money in pockets, make people personally pay for once “free” government services (recall the happy days of IRS refund checks?). Restore the Reagan-era program of general revenue sharing-send checks to each municipality and let them decide how to allocate the money and if they choose not to spend, each resident will get a check. I’d guess that nearly everyone would demand the cash versus wasting money on harebrained schemes. Take a page from the private sector-if Congress creates budgetary surpluses, reward legislators with bonuses (while deducting pay for deficits). Provide similar incentives to bureaucrats who do not spend all their allocated funds. Make frugality pay.
I’m sure other political therapists have additional ideas but the key point is to return to the insights that informed the Constitution: do not depend on enlightened leaders or citizens to prevent the Republic from sinking into bankruptcy. Don’t fight human nature; use human nature. Perhaps we should post pictures of the now demented Uncle Sam everywhere, including milk cartons, showing this once fiercely proud American now attired as a shabby department store Santa Claus handing out freebies and haranguing Chinese leaders for handouts while his debt ridden grandchildren plead for him to stop. The poster would be captioned: Warning, this can happen to you.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana and currently an adjunct instructor at New York University Department of Politics (graduate). He has written many books, the most recent being: The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to “accept differences” undermines civil society and Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.