I have often wondered how democracies manage to survive at all as workable methods of government. They vest the management of public affairs in politicians, who must win election and re-election, in the hands of the people. And what better way is there for a politician to curry favor with those people than by proposing to confer new "benefits" on them? It's a win-win situation: The politicians propose to heap expensive benefits on the people, and the people gratefully reward the politicians with election and re-election. At first glance, the system seems fated to self-destruct: governmental bankruptcy is only a few short steps away.
The only reason it doesn't self-destruct is that a significant portion of the electorate recognizes the danger and exercises a measure of self-restraint: They don't endorse every proposal to confer fresh "benefits" on the public. To be sure, a lot of voters do: They cheerfully support every spendthrift politician who comes down the pike, and every new proposal he or she makes for spending "public" funds. But somehow, mercifully, a substantial fraction of voters smells the snake oil and resists the temptation.
A recent example of this classic problem is Sen. Hillary Clinton's proposal to give every baby born in the United States $5,000 at birth. (Now, why didn't you think of that?) The money would be held in an account for the child, to grow over time, until he or she turns 18. It would then become available (if the person has finished high school) to pay for college, or perhaps make a down payment on a first home.
About 4 million babies are born every year in the United States, so the annual cost of such a plan would be $20 billion, plus administrative costs. According to a news report, "Clinton did not offer any estimate of the total cost of such a program or how she would pay for it." One can guess, however, that she would suggest extracting the money from "the rich," in the form of new taxes -- the usual supposedly painless way liberals always propose to pay for such goodies, though it seldom works out that way.
Senator Clinton's advisers must have gotten to her soon after she came up with the plan (in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus), because Blake Zeff, one of the spokesmen for her campaign, quickly assured reporters that a baby bond program "is not a firm policy proposal, but an idea under consideration." Let us be grateful for small blessings.
For, after all, there is no inherent stop-mechanism in such giveaway proposals. Why only $5,000 per baby? Why not $10,000? Only (some) voters' inherent common sense prevents us from falling for some such cockeyed scheme every year. There is certainly no shortage of thoughtless politicians like Clinton ready to make such superficially popular proposals, quite regardless of their true consequences.
And don't overlook the enormous demagogic appeal of any suggestion for benefiting "our children" -- or the political dangers of opposing one. We are psychologically hardwired to favor proposals that seem to benefit children, and it takes real backbone for a politician to challenge one. (What's the matter with you -- are you against children?)
Still, I will confess to being a little surprised that such a seasoned politician as Hillary Clinton, even in the midst of casual remarks to a caucus of black political leaders, would let herself get carried away to the extent of floating such an ill-considered idea. If she ever becomes president, and is overcome with similar gaseous plans for the public weal, there will presumably be plenty of smart advisers around the White House ready to scotch them before they can hit the air waves or the headlines. But it is unsettling, to say the least, to think that Madam President might need that sort of steadying influence.