Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- A burst of bailouts that has led to increasing federal control and ownership of big businesses has set off alarm bells among free-market critics who fear that it's putting America on a slippery slope to a government-run economy.

The recent bailout bill to rescue U.S. automakers from insolvency -- which proposed giving a government "car czar" unprecedented powers over the companies -- was the latest move that had critics sounding the alarm.

"The moment you extend large taxpayer subsidies to an industry or a company, you develop a fiduciary obligation to the taxpayers because their money is at risk. That leads to a slippery slope that is very disturbing to us," said Mike Franc, vice president and government policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

"The slippery slope is that once you become a part owner and develop an equity stake in the company, then it becomes logical to want to run the company on a day-to-day basis, and that's the worst possible outcome," Franc told me. Not only would the proposed bailout of Detroit's automakers establish a federal overseer to govern their day-to-day corporate decision-making; it would give him broad authority over its transactions and even prohibit the carmakers from challenging state environmental laws in court.

That would prevent the car companies from freely challenging federal policies they do not support -- an extraordinary expansion of government power over basic constitutional rights. "That's a huge First Amendment price to pay for a government bailout," a top trade association executive told me last week.

"I think we are in a consequential historical debate that goes way beyond just saving individual companies. I mean, where does it stop? The majority of the public does not support this stuff," said Dirk Van Dongen, who heads the 40,000-member National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, which opposed the bailout.

The NADW's board supported the Bush administration's $700 billion plan to pump money into the financial sector as the economy teetered on the edge of catastrophe. That was a systemic crisis that threatened to bring down the financial network upon which the entire economy depended for credit to function and survive. "We saw it like a utility that was needed to power the entire system," Van Dongen told me.

But he and many free-market groups now worry that the government's buyout frenzy is in danger of becoming a trend and that the automotive bailout bid was a sign of things to come should the economy worsen and other business sectors come to Washington seeking further handouts.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.