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FEULNER: Raiding an empty vault

New ideas needed to undo progressives’ budget-busting hollow promises

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Twenty-five years ago, Geraldo Rivera hosted a greatly hyped TV special called "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults." It still stands as one of the highest-rated programs in television history.

On the ballyhooed night, cameras crept through the tunnel to the vault. There, on live TV, workers pulled down the concrete wall. The dust settled, and the cameras peered inside. And what did spellbound viewers behold? A pile of dirt, a few empty gin bottles and a discarded stop sign. Such were the treasures in Al Capone's vault.

A quarter-century later, this serves as a wonderful metaphor for the grand project of progressivism. Since the dawn of the 20th century, progressives have foretold the blessings they would deliver. Ordinary citizens lack the wits to govern themselves, they said, so let's put an elite cadre of progressive managers on the case. Give them power, and they soon would have things humming - a chicken in every pot, a Chevy in every garage.

When progressives gained power, they served us the New Deal and Social Security, followed by helpings of the Great Society and Medicare/Medicaid. Now they're jamming the Obama smorgasbord down our throats - Obamacare, bailouts, stimulus packages, Government Motors and "quantitative easing," a.k.a. printing money.

That isn't all. Far from it. For decades, public-sector labor unions harnessed progressivism's spread-the-wealth creed to extract lavish contracts from government. Workers won guarantees of lifetime health care and generous pensions, often without having to contribute a penny from their own above-market wages.

But instead of simmering in their progressive pots, the chickens are flocking home to roost. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are going broke and, if not reformed, will soon devour the entire federal budget, chickens and all.

The Obama spending spree is running up trillions in deficits and adding trillions to the national debt, while the economy stagnates in recession. Public-sector pension funds and health care plans are draining state treasuries. At least 44 states and the District of Columbia are in the red and facing bigger deficits down the road.

At all levels of government, the dreary, dishonest philosophy of progressivism is a crashing failure in practice. Its grandiose promises are as hollow as Al Capone's vault. The empty gin bottles discovered there serve as reminders of the spending binge Congress has been on for years. Only the discarded stop sign offers useful advice. It's high time, indeed, for policymakers to stop.

Stop the reckless borrowing and spending. Sober up and start governing responsibly.

But who will determine the ideas that will supplant the failed progressive project and repair the damage it has wrought? Milton Friedman gave us an answer in the 2002 preface to his 1962 classic, "Capitalism and Freedom":

"Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable."

Of course, Friedman knew full well that ideas are never just "lying around" but are the carefully calibrated ammunition in an endless battle. They come from thinkers on the right who produce books such as "Capitalism and Freedom," and from think tanks.

Why think tanks? Well, consider the two main alternatives. Members of Congress, even conservative members, usually are the last ones to promote ideas bold enough to repair the mess liberals have made. Colleges and universities, meanwhile, tend to be sanctuaries for the most devout apostles of the progressive faith. They're unlikely to overturn their cherished worldview and offer alternatives.

As fed-up voters send more conservatives to Congress and as progressivism's slow-motion train wreck continues, expect to see increased calls from policymakers for ideas from the right. After all, we have plenty of practical, powerful ideas lying around.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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