It was 50 years ago Barry Goldwater declared “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The political world gasped and he suffered a crushing defeat in the 1964 presidential election. Today, pundits and the “legacy media” commonly emphasize the importance of keeping those extremists marginalized.
But there’s a problem with go-along-to-get-along. As Thomas Jefferson observed, “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
That “natural progress” since 1972 has resulted in the number of federal aid, benefits and subsidy programs growing from 1,019 to 2,238 today. During this period, few politicians campaigned for bigger government. In fact, much of the growth occurred during “conservative” Republican administrations, especially the regrettable George W. Bush presidency. This is simply what fiscal moderation looks like.
It’s not hard to get branded a political “extremist” these days. Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee were called out by members of their own party for trying to incorporate modest spending reductions in exchange for raising the debt limit. Rep. Paul Ryan got slapped with the label for proposing fiscal changes that would presumably result in a balanced budget… in 10 years! Jeff Flake used to be a extremist when he stood against the outrageous pork in congressional “earmarks.”
None of the above even addressed the possibility that some of these 2,238 programs may be duplicative or unnecessary. The reason is that once a government handout program — any program — is established, it automatically achieves permanent status. No criteria must be met, no reviews passed. On the contrary, a dedicated constituency instantly forms that is devoted to the program’s further growth. Whether it’s cell phones or paying farmers not to farm, one person’s waste is another’s essential benefit.
So what happens when programs grow and prosper without regard to merit? You get debacles like Social Security, generally considered the iconic achievement of the Progressive movement. If you agree that it’s such a good deal, imagine a bank trust department trying to market this particular retirement plan to clients.
Your contributions will be spent and not actually saved or invested on your behalf, customers would be told. Instead, you’ll get a promise to pay you a set amount when you retire. The amount will only be half of the income your contributions would have produced in standard retirement plans, but even so you won’t have legal recourse if the bank decides to suspend or reduce payments. Moreover, your money vanishes upon your death and your heirs will receive no benefit from your lifetime of savings.
The bank would soon fail and the officers would face jail time. Yet would-be reformers who advocate for personally owned retirement accounts are pushed to the side as “extremists” who “want to take away your Social Security.”
The ethanol corn-for-fuel program is another boondoggle that can’t be stopped. The corn crop converted to fuel in the U.S. each year could feed over 400 million people in a world where many desperately need such staples. Ethanol production actually produces a small net increase in pollution and can harm the engines that burn it. Yet for years now, the “extremists” trying to end this obviously harmful program have been no match for the determined ethanol lobby.
The once modest Medicaid program is reaching truly unaffordable levels. Even it has been exposed for providing inadequate health outcomes for the poor and encouraging wasteful expenditures like excessive ER visits. Yet moderates in Arizona recently authorized a massive expansion, defeating the extremists who thought that maybe paying for over half the births in the state (which our Medicaid program does) was sufficient.
You get the drift. Sen. Harry Reid warns that “we should not let extremists dictate the direction of our country.” But to him and other name callers, extremists are no more than those who believe that we shouldn’t routinely spend more than we take in.
They believe that government is necessary but is our servant not our master, that all races are equal before the law and that hard work, not connections, should be the road to achieving the American Dream.
Count me in.
• East Valley resident Tom Patterson is a retired physician and former state senator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.