Too Big to Succeed?

In 1890, Americans were outraged that their House of Representatives in Washington spent a record $1 billion in just two years. They punished the "Billion Dollar Congress" in the elections that year by making the majority party the minority party, cutting its roster in the House by more than 90 seats.

Think about that. The American people were mad as wet hens because Congress spent half a billion dollars in twelve months and then another half a billion the very next year. But the lawmakers of 1890 were skinflints compared to the porkers in Washington these days.

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Since President Barack Obama took office in January, Congress has spent a full $1 billion every single hour!

Today the numbers are mind-numbing, to be sure - so much so that most members of Congress don't even bother to read the appropriations bills they pass. Let me numb your mind a little more before trying to make some sense of it all:

Before President Obama's term is half over, federal spending will have doubled in just a decade. And it's not a surplus of revenues that they're spending. Indeed, the deficit in a single year's budget is now as large as the entire budget in George W. Bush's first year as president. The flood of red ink is adding to the national debt to the tune of about $4 billion every day. At more than $11 trillion, that debt amounts to $36,000 for every living American.

Certain private firms are widely believed to be "too big to fail." So we're in the process of handing big chunks of them over to the government. Companies that lose billions are being told what to do by an outfit that loses trillions.

The question we all should be asking ourselves is this: Do we trust our economy and our lives to a government that is too big to succeed?

Once upon a time in America, most citizens expected government to keep the peace and otherwise leave them alone. We built a vibrant, self-reliant, entrepreneurial culture with strong families and solid values. We respected property and largely kept the spirit of the 8th and 10th Commandments against coveting and stealing. We understood that government didn't have anything to give anybody except what it first took from somebody, and that a government big enough to give us everything we've got would be big enough to take away everything we've got. We practiced fiscal discipline in our personal lives and we expected nothing less from the people we elected, or we threw them out.

Somewhere along the way, we lost that compass. And just like the Roman Republic that rose on integrity and collapsed in turpitude, we thought the "bread and circuses" the government could provide us would buy us comfort and security.

We gave the government the responsibility to educate our children, though government can never be counted on to teach either liberty or character very well, for that matter. We asked the government to give us health care, welfare, old age pensions, college education and farm subsidies, and now our politicians are bankrupting the country to pay the bills. This welfare state of ours has become one big circle of 300 million people, each with his hands in the next fellow's pocket.

This is a government whose reach even before the financial crisis scarcely left an aspect of American life untouched, from the cradle to the grave and the volume of our toilet bowl water in between. As a portion of our personal income, its tax and regulatory burden consumes at least five times what it did just a century ago. But to the majority on the Potomac, government is nowhere yet big enough.

Remember "In Search of Excellence," the 1982 bestselling management book by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman? One of its salient points is that an organization gets off track when it no longer "sticks to the knitting." When it allows its mission to blur and be stretched far beyond its founding design, when it becomes distracted by endless and dubious new responsibilities, its core competency evaporates. It will fail to do what it is supposed to do, because it's doing too much of what it's not supposed to do.

I am not worried that General Motors may be too big to fail. I am infinitely more concerned that every man, woman and child in America is becoming hogtied to the fortunes of a monster that is far too big to succeed.


Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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