William F. Buckley
The Democratic presidential contenders, in their most recent debate, spent much time condemning the new health bill. This was to be expected: People who are running for president do not pause to congratulate the incumbent president on new social legislation.

What caught the eye was the peg every one of them used for the health measure. This, said Howard Dean -- and everyone sang the same theme -- was a private-interest piece of legislation. He and the others meant by this that the bill was motivated by a desire to help, or, rather, to truckle to, a single constituent entity. The candidates didn't identify older people as the extortionate entity. One does not, when running for political office, say dark things about one-third of the American voting population. It is true that the bill seeks to help elderly Americans who are insufficiently protected from overbearing medical expenses, though the measure is so complicated, it is hard to sort out exactly who the beneficiaries will prove to be.

But everyone listening in on the Des Moines debate was expected to conclude that the drug companies are the profiteers from the current bill. No one seems to cavil at the assumption that new laws are exactly that, obeisances to private interests. Targeted patronage can't be disguised when we are talking about a farm bill. Farmers are intended to benefit from farm bills. Steel tariffs are intended to help steel makers.

What's new and disturbing is that political figures don't seem to cavil at linking legislation to "special interests." Were the 274 representatives and senators who voted for the health bill intending to oblige a private interest? It can of course be argued that any federal disbursement is a special interest disbursement, in that money is going to the few, taken from the many. The arts subsidy is exactly that; so is the forthcoming monument to the Twin Towers victims.

What is missing is the invocation of the commonweal. Yes, every representative and every senator, defending every expenditure, possibly excluding arrant pork, will defend it as being of public, not private, interest. But more and more, one gets the impression that they are winking at us when they say it.

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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