For all its other sins, I will always be grateful to NPR for introducing me to two things that I still value and cherish today. The first was George Martin’s album, “In My Life.” (I might do a full posting on that album someday.) The second was the political wit and wisdom of P. J. O’Rourke, when they interviewed him for his book “Parliament Of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts To Explain The Entire U. S. Government.”
Written as only P.J. can write, he goes beyond the dry facts and spells out in clear (and memorable) language just how government operates, and how he thinks it ought to operate — and it influenced my own political beliefs tremendously. His explanation of how God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat does a pretty darned good job of summing up the differences between the two parties, and that explanation has only strengthened over time.
But what affected me the most, I think, would be his discussion of the federal budget.
In the chapter on the budget (entitled “Would You Kill Your Mother To Pave I-95?”), P.J. explains how to balance the federal budget. I’m going to reprint one entire paragraph here:
The other secret to balancing the budget is to remember that all tax revenue is the result of holding a gun to someone’s head. Not paying taxes is against the law. If you don’t pay your taxes, you’ll be fined. If you don’t pay the fine, you’ll be jailed. If you try to escape from jail, you’ll be shot. Thus, I — in my role as citizen and voter — am going to shoot you — in your role as taxpayer and ripe suck — if you don’t pay your share of the national tab. Therefore, every time the government spends money on anything, you have to you ask yourself, “would I kill my kindly, gray-haired mother for this?” In the case of defense spending, the argument is simple: “Come on, Ma, everybody’s in this together. If those Canadian hordes come down over the border, we’ll all be dead meat. Pay up.” In the case of helping cripples, orphans, and blind people, the argument is almost as persuasive: “Mother, I know you don’t know these people from Adam, but we’ve got five thousand years of Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality going here. Fork over the dough.” But day care doesn’t fly. “You’re paying for the next-door neighbor’s baby-sitter, or it’s curtains for you, Mom.”
That has been my touchstone for deciding on government spending for a very, very long time. I never forget that the government has no money of its own. Every single penny it has, it has because it takes from us. Well, it might be better to say that “we give it,” because we are ultimately responsible for our government, and it is responsible to us. Tax cuts are NOT about “giving money to the rich,” or simply giving money to people, they are about taking less of what is ours to begin with. People who rejoice in their tax refunds are fools for thinking that “the government gave me money” instead of “the government borrowed all this money from me, then returned it with no interest.” (And I’m one of them.)
So, how does this suddenly become timely? With the discussion of the S-CHIP program.
The State Children’s Health Insurance Program is the subject of a rather fierce argument these days. Democrats in Congress want to expand it drastically, while President Bush wants to keep it roughly as it is. It looks like a no-lose deal for the Democrats, as they get to use one of their favorite dodges (“it’s for the children!”) with some degree of justification. And those who oppose it can expect to have it hung around their necks like a millstone.
But as always, the devil is in the details. I haven’t made a thorough study of the measure, but one of those details that has stuck in my head is that the proposed expansion will have the government paying for the health insurance of children from families making up to three times the official poverty level.
Think about that.
Then run it through P.J.’s “Mom” filter.
“Come on, Ma, break out the checkbook. We all gotta take care of the poor kids. And while we’re at it, we’re gonna also pay for the not-so-poor kids, too. We can’t trust their parents to make the right choices for their lives, so we’re gonna cover families making up to 62 grand a year.”
That also rankles the libertarian in me. Parents are ultimately responsible for their children. The parents should be the first resort for making decisions for their children. And if the parents are not taking care of their children as they should, then the state should consider simply taking those children away.
Should parents provide for their children’s health care? Absolutely — that’s a point we reinforce through child-neglect laws. Should they do so by making certain the child is covered by some form of insurance? Not necessarily.
The parents might be wealthy enough to not need it. They might have odd religious beliefs that restrict dependence on medicine and put more weight in their God. (That one is best settled on a case-by-case basis, with full respect for the First Amendment protections.) Or they might have an innate distrust of insurance companies. Their reasons are, by and large, irrelevant; they have a right to raise and care for their children as they see fit, and that right carries with it the presumption that they are doing things properly right up until it is proven otherwise.
The expansion of S-CHIP is the ultimate, literal expression of the “nanny state.” We don’t trust each other (and, by extension and definition, ourselves) to take care of our children, so we want the government (also, by extension and definition) everyone else to do it for us.
And how well will that work out? Next time you’re standing in line at the DMV, the next time you’re waiting to pay a parking ticket, the next time you hear about another lawmaker caught playing toe-tapping in the men’s room or getting caught with a freezer full of cash or collecting money from fugitive fundraisers or molesting interns and underage pages, tell yourself “these are the people who can make better decisions about my children than I can. And if you disagree, Mom, then I gotta bust a cap in your head.”