Big Government

Two years ago, President Clinton solemnly intoned in his State of the Union address, "the era of big government is over." This anti-big government pose was a politically astute move. The president was facing a budget deficit and he wanted to be re-elected, and so he distanced himself from big-government proposals. But this year, with both his re-election and the budget deficit behind him, President Clinton offered an expensive wish list for expanding both the size and the scope of the federal government. Two of the most controversial proposals are to extend Medicare to early retirees as young as 55, and a proposal to provide subsidies for childcare. There are plenty of good reasons to object to both these proposals. For example, it’s not clear how the president expects to pay for them. After all, the budget surplus is only a projected surplus—and only made possible by borrowing from the social security trust fund. But the most important objection is not political or economic, it's moral. Christian objections to the size and scope of government are rooted in the way the government actions can affect how ordinary people behave. Do these actions incline people toward virtue or vice? Do they encourage the so-called "mediating structures" such as the church and the family, which are the moral bedrock of a healthy culture? Or do they it crowd them out with government-run alternatives? Do they excuse or reinforce individual responsibility? A recent article by columnist George Will in Newsweek deals head-on with these questions. Will points out that some of America's most pressing social problems require that we change our behavior in three ways: have fewer illegitimate children, spend more time with our kids, and retire later rather than sooner, in order to keep from bankrupting social security. But instead of proposing these things, the president would create what Will calls "perverse incentives" to do exactly the opposite. Extending Medicare to younger retirees will only encourage people to retire sooner, not later, and will place more stress on the Social Security system. Even worse are the incentives provided by subsidizing childcare, including, incredibly, centers built inside public high schools. By making daycare a federal entitlement, Will writes, Clinton would ease "the burdens of single parenthood and [communicate] a government stance of moral agnosticism about this 'lifestyle choice.'" The president’s proposed subsidies would spare people the need to face the consequences of their actions-—taking people off the hook for wrong choices. But ratifying these kind of "lifestyle choices"—like having a child out of wedlock—is exactly contrary to what government ought to be doing. Government should be encouraging virtue and responsibility, encouraging citizens to make right decisions. The president's proposals do exactly the reverse. They provide a perverse safety net for irresponsibility. There's going to be a healthy debate in the days ahead about the merits of Clinton's proposals. Congress will go back and forth on what we can afford. But the issue goes beyond what we can afford. It's about how much longer we can afford to subsidize moral irresponsibility. The Era of Big Government lives on, to the detriment not just of our wallets, but also our souls.  


Chuck Colson



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