Just a few blocks away from my home in Minnesota is a gorgeous little waterfall. Minnehaha Creek winds under a big weeping willow tree, dashes over flat rocks, and then falls in a frothy mess six or seven feet down beneath a little bridge. I drive over that bridge on my way to work, and this time of year I often see a little gaggle of kids at the fishing hole on the other side of the bridge, or a kayak plunging over the falls.
Right now there is something else, too. The neighborhood is full of blue and white signs that say “Save the Waterfall!” The town wants to remove it to restore some of the other parts of the river. It turns out that unlike the creek and nearby lakes, the waterfall was a creation of man, not God. It was built in the 1930’s by a government program, and cuts off fish from their native habitat upstream. Now that it is here, though, no one wants to give it up. It’s pretty.
That’s the thing about benefits bestowed by government: they quickly become the status quo, and nearly impossible to reverse. Like the weeping willow by the creek, they become unmovable despite shallow roots.
We are seeing this play out right now within the debate over health care. The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid and allowed many others to afford medical insurance through subsidies, but it has only been a few years that those benefits have been in place. Though some of the provisions of the ACA kicked in immediately, the individual mandate to buy insurance, the bar on denying insurance because of pre-existing conditions, the opening of insurance exchanges and the subsidization of some private insurance did not begin until 2014—just three years ago. Yet within the debate on revising the program, the newly-created benefits are proving hard to pry away, even for Republicans who promised for several years to “repeal Obamacare.” As someone who favors the broader benefits, integrity demands that I recognize how quickly they became entitlements.
That dynamic is hardly limited to health care. Within my own area of expertise, criminal law, the inexorable growth of the federal government has been disastrous. Until the 1980’s, narcotics enforcement was almost entirely left to the states to address. That’s appropriate, given that the problems differ vastly from one state to another. Once the feds expanded into the area, though, mandatory minimums were imposed, thousands of street cases were federalized, and incarceration skyrocketed, all while the actual use of narcotics continued at about the same level. Now that this federal regime is in place, it has proven almost impossible to dislodge despite its failure at solving any discernable problem. An entrenched bureaucracy of prisons, law enforcement, and lawyers are the protectors of the status quo in this area.
Military procurement suffers the same problem. To gain the commitment of Congressional sponsors, military hardware is manufactured in as many states as possible, inefficiently creating jobs and profits at the expense of taxpayers. Few would look at the way this works and see it as a good system. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained bitterly in his memoirs about a process that provides rich rewards to corporations and politicians without sufficient benefit to the military. Once the federal contracts start flowing, though, they are supported by those same political forces and military spending continues upward. Once it starts, it is hard to end.
Like it or not, the dynamic is undeniable. Once we create a federal program that spins out benefits to citizens, politicians, and bureaucracies, it becomes nearly impossible to destroy. Both parties are to blame; While Republicans talk about federalism, when they gain power they expand federal programs at will. It was recent Republican presidents, after all, who gave us two new executive departments (Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security), Medicare Part D, and two intractable wars, all at tremendous cost to American taxpayers.
I don’t think that government is inherently bad or incompetent. It isn’t, and it does many things well. Nor am I arguing that the federal government should avoid big projects. Many of the biggest —including the interstate highway system, the enforcement of civil rights, and Social Security —have proven to be very wise, and single-payer health care may turn out to be our best option. Instead, I am arguing that new programs should be created with great caution and deliberation. That requires a degree of civility and bipartisanship we lack in Washington now.
It takes something else, too: a sense of sacrifice. Often, when a well-deliberated and fundamentally good program emerges it requires a new tax or even the risk of lives. We don’t seem to be very good at shared sacrifice anymore, and that may well be one root of our political discord. After all, we want our waterfall.