The federal government is growing like kudzu. That's the Japanese ivy plant that's taking over roadsides all over the south and is even invading the north.
Kudzu does some good, holding the ground and so on, but the price is steep: It kills the other plants, trees and bushes by smothering them. It's kind of pretty in the summer, like the topiary animals at Disney World, full of fanciful shapes. In the states that have cold winters, though, it leaves a tangled mess of dead trees and brown, twisted vines — a perfect symbol for big government's strangling tendencies.
In Washington, D.C., there are hundreds of buildings with tens of thousands of offices that are filled with federal employees laboring under florescent lights and whose job is to manage America's population of 316 million. There are so many of them lining the south side of Independence Avenue that we might as well rename it Dependence Street.
This is not new. We can argue about whether it began with Woodrow Wilson or with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, but a strong case can be made that Washington's kudzu-like growth began with the advent of air conditioning.
As you walk down the sidewalk staring up at these concrete and glass monoliths, you can't help but wonder what the people in there are doing. They can't all be playing Sudoku, but it might be better if they were. At least they'd leave the rest of us alone.
Many years ago, I had a friend who worked for a federal agency. She told me that her desk was filled with games like Parcheesi, since she could easily finish what few tasks she had before 11 a.m.
It could be worse. Bored employees at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission got caught in 2010 using their computers to access Internet porn.
It would be profoundly unfair to indict all federal employees just because a few perverts at the SEC got caught, or because the Internal Revenue Service shelled out big bucks for parties in Las Vegas between forays against the Tea Parties and conservative candidates.
I happen to know some conscientious federal employees at various agencies who are patriotic and take their jobs seriously. In general terms, though, the government is way too big, so let's return to the kudzu analogy.
The executive branch alone has 2.8 million employees, including 600,000 postal workers. Surprisingly, only about 370,000 federal employees work in the Washington, D.C. area, plus lots of civilian contractors. The contractors have their own concrete and glass canyons rising in the Dulles corridor, whose computer-related companies now rival Silicon Valley's. That giant, sucking sound you hear is money flowing from the rest of the country into Washington's burgeoning suburbs.
The U.S. military employs 1.5 million, plus an army of contractors. Congress, with 535 senators and members, makes do with about 30,000 employees. The U.S. Supreme Court, which actually runs the entire country, manages with only around 500 employees.
According to one analysis, the federal government effectively employs about 15 million people, including contractors. Some federal employees work on things that benefit us all, such as securing the safety of our food, water, drugs and airplane landings, and serving veterans. Some work to secure the border. Some work entirely in the realm of income transfer, issuing checks and payments from taxpayers to other Americans and an unknown number of illegal aliens.
As with kudzu, this all appears to be getting out of hand. CNS News reports that 101 million Americans — nearly a third of the populace — now receive some form of federal food aid. This exceeds the total number of full-time, private sector employees.
The Department of Agriculture has 105,000 employees, about a third of whom work for the Forest Service. The department oversees just over a million farmers, plus the food stamps now collected by nearly 50 million people. That's a lot of oversight.
Many federal employees churn out reports, needed and otherwise. Despite the digital revolution, these eat up enough trees to make an Amazon forest logger green with envy. While perusing page 43,205 of the Federal Register for July 19, I came across a proposal from the Department of Health and Human Services to solicit suggestions on how to implement the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act. Here's my suggestion: Cut back government. Glad to help.
Some federal employees, as we have learned recently, accumulate data about our phone calls, emails, Facebook postings, Tweets, bank accounts and credit cards — trillions of bytes of information. They want to know everything — in order to protect us.
To administer Obamacare's new taxes, the Internal Revenue Service is adding at least 16,000 more employees. Somebody has to wade through the thousands of pages of regulations to figure out how to stick it to us — for our own good.
C.S. Lewis, who had a jaundiced view of "progress," warned in "The Screwtape Letters" that the people to be feared most are those who expand authority under benevolent auspices.
"The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint," Lewis wrote.
"It is not done even in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.
"Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state ."
America is not a police state — yet. Government is necessary because, as James Madison observed, men are not angels. Without government, life would be nasty, brutish and short.
But right now, the federal government, with Democrats pouring Miracle Gro on its kudzu-like growth, has far too many people watching over us for our own good.
We're finding out the hard way where the road goes that's paved with good intentions.
Robert Knight is senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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