John Stossel: The disappointing year in liberty
This wasn't a great year for liberty. A few disasters that government caused:
• Obamacare. It was supposed to "bend the cost curve" downward. The central planners had lots of time to perfect their scheme. For a generation, the brightest left-wing wonks focused on health care policy. The result? Soviet-style consumer service comes to America.
• Government shutdown. The real disaster was the unnecessary panic over it. Zoos would shut down, and baby pandas would starve. The media made it sound like America might not survive even slightly limited government. They were happy to echo the politicians' claim that there's no wasteful or stupid spending to cut.
"The cupboard is bare," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "There's no more cuts to make."
Nothing to cut? Government spends $3.8 trillion a year!
Many Republicans are almost as eager to spend as Democrats, despite the difference in rhetoric between the two parties. About the only spending reduction Republicans accomplished in the past few years was the so-called sequester — which really happened by legal default because the two parties couldn't reach an agreement. The sequester instituted cuts of about $85 billion a year, a mere sliver of that $3.8 trillion budget and a still smaller sliver of our $17 trillion debt.
Yet even those modest cuts will not happen now under the new congressional agreement. Because some Republicans were upset the sequester made small cuts to the military's budget and were fearful another partial government shutdown might hurt their chances in upcoming elections, they gave up the modest spending discipline the sequester imposed. Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said conservatives who want to keep the sequester are "ridiculous."
The Republican behind the new agreement, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was once called a fanatical budget-slasher who wanted to push Granny off a cliff. People talked about him reading Ayn Rand and being a cutthroat capitalist. But now, even he abandons the meager budget cuts that were already scheduled.
I suppose Republicans feel they have no choice. They face Democrats who will cut nothing. They hope to win the Senate next election and realize that spending cuts are not particularly popular with the general public.
Americans say they want less spending. But then they fight for farm subsidies, flood insurance and "economic development" schemes. Most federal spending funds Social Security, Medicare and the military. Even citizens who sound fiscally conservative, especially elderly ones, don't want these things cut.
• This was also the year we found out just how much the federal government spies on its own citizens. I annoyed my fellow libertarians by saying the privacy I lose to data mining seems a small price to pay for surveillance against terrorism. I posted a list of a hundred other things government does that upset me more. Some people responded by calling me a "traitor" and "LINO" (libertarian in name only).
Look, libertarians, I'm constantly angry at my government for lots of things, but I just can't get worked up about data mining. My emails fly through the air. For all I know, my political enemies already read them.
It is upsetting, though, that the National Security Agency snooping goes far beyond what the government first claimed. President Barack Obama assured us the NSA does not read our emails or listen to our phone calls. But it turns out they sometimes do.
They say they only look for terrorists, and they won't use the records to harass and punish their critics. But why would we trust that the same big government that spends $3.8 trillion a year, raids our homes looking for drugs and regulates almost every part of our lives won't use its snooping powers to look into things other than terrorism?
Given the truth of Thomas Jefferson's warning — "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground" — I fear next year will be still worse for liberty.
To make it a better year, we can't trust such a powerful government to restrain itself. We should cut back its duties to reduce its power.
John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network, and the author of "No They Can't! Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed."