- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

With today's midterm election, with most candidates clinging to the "safe" center, terms like "left," "right" and "center" clatter in final campaign oratory.

Yet these terms, along with kindred words like "conservatives" and "liberals" (the latter spun into "progressives," "moderates," and "centrists" today), are relative and passing. In particular, our political "center" shows over time a leftward drift, especially since the 16th Income Tax Amendment in 1913 and the Supreme Court's approval of Otto von Bismarck's Welfare State idea in 1937. Yet while this trend is bipartisan, subtle and mostly unrecognized, it spells a risk to human liberty. It can't happen here or can it?

Nobel economist James Buchanan of the Public Choice School (seeing government as a sub rosa rent-seeking and -granting vehicle for private ends) sees this risk, per his op-ed line of "Socialism is dead, Leviathan lives" in 1990 when Eurocommunism was crashing from East Germany to the Soviet Union. Nobel economist Milton Friedman also sees risk in his idea of "the tyranny of the status quo," a status shifting ever leftward.

This trend of unsaid Leftward Ho toward a not-so-distant land of "serfdom" (Friedrich Hayek's term) is seen in the growth of government, especially at the federal level with its welfare policies like Social Security and Medicare. Check the Cato Institute's figures on federal taxes as a percent of gross domestic product based on data from the Congressional Budget Office and Census Bureau. In 1900, it was 3.0 percent; in 1920, 7.3 percent; in 1940, 6.8 percent; 1960, 17.8 percent; 1980, 18.9 percent; and in 2000, 20.8 percent or almost a sevenfold increase since 1900.

Or check the Ninth and 10th Amendments, still on the books, for what the Fathers had in mind regarding the federal government, noting their firm play on states' and individual rights, twice mentioning theþ"people" and so implying, per the Federalist Papers (1787, 1788) and Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" (1835,1840), a doctrine of freedom and free markets:

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Or check a new book, "Dependent on D.C.," by Boise State economist Charlotte Twight, with doctorates in economics and jurisprudence, in which she tracks the rise of federal control and "evisceration" (her word) of the rule of law over the lives of ordinary Americans clearly moves to the left.

She sees, for example, how the IRS crunches the Fourth Amendment bar against "unreasonable searches and seizures," how the 6.2 percent Social Security employer payment on an employee's wages gives a false signal to all employees who pay not only their own 6.2 percent share but in effect the entire 12.4 percent employer-employee hit, how in 2000 when some 4,699 federal rules and regulations were considered, the Federal Register had 74,258 pages of proposed and final rules and regs in that year alone. So great work for not only lawyers but bureaucrats waggishly described as the fourth branch of government.

But, pray, who unknowingly foots the bill for that regulatory flood in light of the Fathers' call for government by "consent of the governed"? In 1883, Yale social scientist William Graham Sumner gave a prescient answer naming the ordinary citizen as the Forgotten Man. Franklin D. Roosevelt appropriated the phrase without credit to Sumner in his 1932 presidential campaign but redefined it, in a class-conscious leftward way, as the man at "the bottom of the economic pyramid."

In 1937, again, FDR dared to offer to "pack" the Supreme Court of "nine old men" by raising, if need be, the number of justices to 15 to stop the court from undoing New Deal laws like the Agricultural Adjustment Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, and potentially the Social Security Act.

The dare upset Congress and the nation but, in the end, it worked as the high bench saw the light and decisions against the New Deal became decisions for it. America's welfare state was set, the Constitution of limited powers per the Ninth and 10th Amendments was ebbing, a mighty push leftward had triumphed. It was a Pyrrhic triumph.

So is there any doubt of where the "center" has drifted and how far? As Cato's fiscal policy director Chris Edwards winds up his dismaying chapter on fiscal policy in the forthcoming "Cato Handbook for the 108th Congress" (the upcoming Congress overseeing a $2.1 trillion federal budget in fiscal 2003):

"Both Congress and the Administration must end their shortsighted jostling for more taxpayer cash. Not only is the government running huge deficits again, but the looming explosion in entitlement costs demands that all aspects of the federal spending empire be overhauled."

Explosion? Looming? As the poet said: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold."


William H. Peterson is adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation and contributing editor to the Foundation for Economic Education's "Ideas on Liberty."

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