A government of the people’s every wish?

July 20th, 2010

I’ve listened to Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies” video. I’ve watched the Tea Party movement evolve from a joke into a political force. I’ve read up on the primary candidates who want to take back government, take down government, burn down Washington.

I’ve seen all of it, I hear all of it and I don’t believe any of it. A rose is a rose is a rose — and hypocrisy is hypocrisy, whether it takes the form of champagne socialism or mama grizzlies who would go on the rampage if, God forbid, their mortgage tax relief were ever taken away.

If you don’t live in this country all of the time, and I don’t, here is what you notice when you come home: Americans — with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs — demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world. They don’t simply want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong. And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too.

When, through a series of flukes, a crazy person smuggled explosives onto a plane last Christmas, the public bayed for blood and held the White House responsible. When, because of bad luck and planning mistakes, an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the public bayed for blood and held the White House responsible again.

In fact, the crazy person was stopped by an alert passenger, not federal officials; and if the oil rig disaster is ever fixed, it will be through the efforts of a private company. Nevertheless, these kinds of events set off a chain reaction: A government program is created, experts are hired, new machines are ordered for the airports or new monitors sent beneath the ocean. This is how we got the Kafkaesque security network that an extraordinary Post investigation this week calls, quite conservatively, “A hidden world, growing beyond control.”

For this hidden world, with its 1,271 security and intelligence organizations and its 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances, is not the creation of a secretive totalitarian cabal: It has been set up in response to public demand. It’s true that the French want to retire early, and that the British think health care should be free, but when things — any old things — go wrong, Americans also write to their congressional representatives and their commander in chief, demanding action. And precisely because this is a democracy, Congress and the president respond, pass a law, build a building.

The mechanism works the same way even when there isn’t an emergency. To put it bluntly, middle-class Americans of the right, left and center have come to expect a level of personal financial security that — despite the stereotypes — most people around the world would never demand from their governments. In a book review this month, Brink Lindsey, vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute — a man who knows what he is up against — reported some extraordinary statistics. The majority of Americans are wary of global trade, don’t trust free markets and also think that “the benefits from . . . Social Security or Medicare are worth the costs of those programs.” And when the sample is restricted to people who support the Tea Party movement? The share is still 62 percent.

Yet it is Social Security, Medicare and the ever-expanding list of earmarks — federal grants — that are going to sink the American budget in the next few decades, not President Obama’s health-care reform (though that won’t help). Yet in Washington, these expenditures are known as “third rails”: If you touch them, you’re dead. President George W. Bush talked a little about making individuals more responsible for their retirement, and then he gave up. The “privatization” of Social Security, as it was sneeringly described, was too unpopular, particularly among his supporters.

Look around the world, and we don’t look as exceptional as we think. Chileans are willing to save for their own retirement. Most Europeans are reconciled to the idea that not everybody, at any age and in any condition, is entitled to the most expensive medical technology. A secretary of state or defense traveling with dozens of cars and armed security guards would seem absurd in many countries, as would the notion that the government provides a tax break if you buy a house or that schools should close if there is ice on the roads. Yet we not only demand ludicrous levels of personal and political safety, we also rant and rave against the vast bureaucracies we have created — democratically, constitutionally, openly — to deliver it.