- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Suppose someone left you an inheritance of a million dollars — with the proviso that every cent had to be spent on tickets for you to watch professional wrestling matches. If you were a professional wrestling fan, you would be in hog heaven.

But what if you were not? How much would that million dollars be worth to you? Certainly a lot less than a million dollars.

What if there was a clause in the will that provided you could forfeit the $1 million and instead receive a cash amount of $100,000 to spend as you pleased? Many of us would take the hundred grand without strings, even if that were only 10 cents on the dollar compared to the million for watching wrestling.

In short, money with strings is worth less than money without strings — sometimes a lot less.

Many who receive money from Social Security or other government programs are learning the hard way the difference between money with strings and money without strings. For example, Social Security recipients have to be enrolled in Medicare, whether they want to be or not. “Universal” coverage means compulsory coverage, just with prettier political spin.

Those who complain how hard it is to understand the new Medicare coverage seem not to realize no government program voted into law by more than 500 members of Congress will be simple.

Everybody in Congress has his own pet notions or his own little claim to fame, and a lot of those pet notions and claims to fame have to go into the legislation, to get the votes needed to pass the law. The complications and restrictions are the strings attached to Medicare.

People who think they are getting something for nothing by having government provide what they would otherwise have to buy in the private market are not only kidding themselves by ignoring the taxes government has to take from them to give them the appearance of something for nothing. They are also ignoring the strings that will be attached to their own money when it comes back to them in government benefits.

That is not even counting the fact that government programs are usually less efficient than similar services provided by private enterprises.

Compare the service you get at the Department of Motor Vehicles with the service you get at Triple-A. No one who belongs to the American Automobile Association is likely to go to the DMV for a service also available through Triple-A.

Yet the illusion of something for nothing has kept the welfare state going — and expanding. If there is something for sale in the market for $10 and you would not pay more than $5 for it, some politician can always offer to get it for you free — as a newly discovered “basic right,” or at least at a “reasonable” or “affordable” price.

Suppose the “reasonable” or “affordable” price is $3. How do you suppose the government can produce something for $3 that private industry cannot produce for less than $10? Greater efficiency in government? Give me a break!

The fact that you pay only $3 at the cash register means nothing. If it costs the government $12 to produce and distribute what you get for $3, the government will have to get another $9 in taxes to cover the difference.

One way or another, you will pay $12 for something you were unwilling to buy for $10 or even $6. But so long as you think you are getting something for nothing, the politicians’ shell game works and the welfare state can continue expanding.

The Baby Boomers, who are beginning to turn 60, are unlikely to get back all the money they paid into Social Security, with or without strings. The illusion Social Security can provide pensions more cheaply than a private annuity or other retirement plan is the grand something-for-nothing political triumph.

The Baby Boomers are going to pay the price big time.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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