Steve Chapman

The point of the plan, after all, is to shore up struggling firms by awarding them more for those assets than they could get anywhere else. As an analysis in The Washington Post put it, "the more effective the plan, the more expensive it will be."

Not only that, the more effective it is, the more damage it will do to the free market system. Saving companies from their bad gambles turns business into a game of "profits for me, losses for you," corroding the incentives that make capitalism so innovative and efficient.

And for what? Bernanke warns of a recession. But economic downturns are not to be avoided at all costs. And one good thing about recessions is that they end, usually in a matter of months. An intervention of this nature, by contrast, would have malignant consequences for decades to come.

A group of 122 economists, including at least two Nobel laureates, signed a letter this week summarizing the danger: "If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America's dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted."

Not to mention the risk of giving the executive branch powers that a Russian czar would envy. If this bailout goes through, the term "limited government" will have to be permanently retired.

Paulson and Bernanke say, and probably believe, that their program is for the good of us all. But remember what Thoreau thought of their 19th-century counterparts. "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good," he wrote, "I should run for my life."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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