A Bridge to Reality

Posted: Aug 10, 2007 12:46 PM

If you talk constantly, as presidential candidates are virtually required to do, you’re bound to say something correct eventually. And recently, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., stumbled across a good point.

“There may be nothing we individually can do to try to ease the pain and difficulties the bridge collapse will cause to the Twin Cities area, but there is a great deal we can do as a nation to ensure that accidents like that don’t happen in New Hampshire and across America,” Clinton told potential voters in Rochester, N.H. on Aug. 8.

She’s correct. Our government must build bridges and roads we can count on. But as the Minnesota bridge collapse shows us, it isn’t doing so. The question is, why not?

Two reasons. 1) We’ve asked the government to focus on doing things that can’t be done instead of things that can and must be done. 2) Instead of leaving things in the hands of professionals, lawmakers have become too involved in deciding which projects get funded.

First, consider what the government spends its money and efforts on. Since the 1960s, for example, we’ve engaged in a multi-trillion dollar “war on poverty.” That’s a war without end, of course. Poverty can be reduced, but not eliminated, no matter how much we spend.

All that spending has helped some people and hurt others. But the bottom line is that, as long as the government tries to do something that’s impossible, it isn’t working hard enough to accomplish what is possible.

Another way Washington overreaches is by trying to guarantee everyone economic security.

Consider some of the questions that Clinton and her fellow Democrats faced at a recent debate. This one was typical: “After 34 years with LTV Steel, I was forced to retire because of a disability. Two years later, LTV filed bankruptcy. I lost a third of my pension, and my family lost their health care. Every day of my life I sit at the kitchen table across from the woman who devoted 36 years of her life to my family, and I can’t afford to pay for her health care. What’s wrong with America, and what will you do to change it?”

Well, the simple answer is that there’s nothing wrong with America. Sure, in a capitalist society there will always be some disruptions as companies start up or shut down and people change jobs. But that economic openness is what generates economic opportunity.

The more involved Washington becomes in attempting to regulate the economy (especially if it attempts to “give” us universal health insurance), the fewer opportunities there will be. That’s why socialist economies such as France suffer from double-digit unemployment, while unemployment here remains at record-low levels.

Today we have Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and unemployment insurance to help protect Americans against social disruptions. That should be more than enough. But no matter how good of a net we build, there will always be somebody who falls through the cracks. When the government tries to help everyone, all the time, it will always fall short. In the meantime, it’s not focusing on solvable problems, such as building safe bridges.

There are other examples. Politicians want to determine farm policy, they want to determine what fuel we use, they want to determine what medical treatment we receive. All of these things are impossible for lawmakers to do, and, thus, they ought to stop trying to do them.

But that’s the second problem. No matter what, lawmakers won’t leave projects up to professionals. They’d rather earmark projects that aren’t needed, stealing money that could otherwise be invested in critical projects.

Sen. Clinton perfectly encapsulates both these concerns. She says she wants to boost federal funding for public transit by $1.5 billion per year. Well, how did public transit get into this discussion? We should be concerned about preventing bridges from falling down, not about encouraging people to ride the bus.

But this perfectly highlights the earmark mentality. Federal funding for mass transit is simply a big spending federal program funding something Americans don’t want or need. If people want to take the train to work, they will. And if they don’t, no amount of tax dollars can convince them to. Clinton’s proposal is the perfect example of the government trying to do something that can’t be done, instead of something that must.

We need a federal government with a limited role. It should focus on achievable things, such as winning wars, sealing the border and building dependable highways and bridges. Until Washington narrows its focus, the danger will continue to grow.