Voters frequently complain that government functions poorly -- and with good reason. However, governments are good at one thing: making citizens dependent upon them.
"We have seen [the federal] government socialize our education system and make our schools among the worst in the world," Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, warned in the wake of the recent financial collapse. "We have seen this government take over most of our health-care system, making private insurance less and less affordable."
The senator is correct that the federal government's attempts to address these and other problems have often made them worse. And his warning is more critical today than ever before.
That's because, as the Heritage Foundation's 2008 Index of Government Dependency puts it, "A citizenry that reaches a certain tipping point in its dependency on government runs the risk of evolving into a society that demands an ever-expanding state that caters to group self-interests rather than pursuing the public good." And we're nearing that tipping point.
The index measures the extent to which government programs "crowd out" what were once social obligations and services carried out by community and religious groups, family networks and even local governments.
The level of our dependency seems set to soar further. This year's rolling series of federal bailouts - hundreds of billions to support housing, banks, money market investors, perhaps even automakers eventually - may have been necessary in the short run, but will only serve to increase our dependence on government in the long run.
Today's level of dependency is double the baseline mark set in 1980. And dependency has soared during the George W. Bush presidency, increasing an astonishing 30 percent since 2001. Sadly, Mr. Bush is leaving his successor a dubious legacy.
Dependency on government is increasing at both ends of Americans lives. Older folks, of course, rely on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. These programs alone account for more than half of all non-interest federal spending today. And they're growing.
In just 20 years, entitlements are expected to account for such nearly 65 percent of non-interest spending. It's a simple fact that every day 10,000 baby boomers will retire and begin to collect benefits.
By 2028, some 80 million boomers will depend on the generosity of Washington. Many of these people, of course, are middle- or upper-class citizens, who could easily afford to fund their own retirement. Yet even those who would prefer to opt out of Medicare and pay their own health insurance bills are forbidden by law do so.
Meanwhile, younger Americans are relying ever more heavily on federal aid for education.
Last year the federal government spent $71.7 billion on elementary and secondary education programs, almost 10 percent of total education spending. That makes a federal case out of what should be a local government responsibility. Lawmakers also meddle with higher education. Federal spending on educational subsidies for college loans has risen by 108 percent since 2001. Since 1962, higher education aid has increased eleven-fold.
Policymakers should attack dependency in both age groups. For entitlements, lawmakers should fix the budget process so that today's budget shows the future cost of tomorrow's retirees. Congress should also make our retirement obligations part of the budget process, so lawmakers will understand how much they're agreeing to spend on retirees in future decades. That will force future lawmakers to make the tough decisions our country will need to make to keep entitlement programs solvent for future generations.
Meanwhile, Washington should slash spending on student loans, and return control of education spending to state and local governments.
"Americans and our free market economy are resilient," Mr. DeMint says. "And with fewer misguided laws and less onerous regulations, we will get through this crisis, as Americans have many times before."
The best way to begin the healing process is by reducing our dependence on government - before we lose our ability to do so.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.