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Are Americans More ‘Socialist’ Than Europeans?

Although I’ve been critical of my state’s current governor, it’s usually been to twit him for not cutting budgets sufficiently. While Tom Corbett is spot on in wanting to privatize Pennsylvania’s liquor monopoly, he should not be trying to feather the nests of other public employees by promising to pay off teachers with the proceeds gained from selling state-owned liquor stores. It seems wrong to mix something as desirable as privatizing liquor sales with something as silly as paying teachers to instruct adolescents in the proper use of alcoholic beverages. Let parents or some voluntary group do the instructing!

Unfortunately I’m not at all on the same page with most residents of the Keystone State, who presumably dislike Corbett for being a budget cruncher. According to the latest Franklin and Marshall poll, Corbett, who enjoys only 26 percent approval, may be the most hated governor in Pennsylvania history. It seems nothing he does is really popular: you’d think everyone but state employees working in the state-owned liquor stores would be applauding Corbett’s proposal to privatize liquor sales. After all, state residents, according to extensive studies conducted by Commonwealth Foundation, are paying 50 percent more on their liquor purchases than people in surrounding states.

Strangely enough, the privatization plan resonates positively with only 52 percent of those polled. I suspect that once this idea was linked to the supposedly stingy Corbett, a plan that otherwise would have been immensely popular lost part of its appeal. It apparently makes no difference in terms of his popular standing that Corbett’s state budget, given rising costs, is still higher than previous budgets, if not nearly as high as the one Governor Rendell would likely be giving us. There is nothing to suggest the governor will slash our extravagant pensions for public employees.

This situation illustrates for me a general problem facing this country, perhaps even more critically than is the case in other Western countries. Unlike Canada or Germany, which have large welfare states but are willing to economize, in the U.S. voters just want more and more social programs, and politicians are too cowardly or ideologically driven to say “no.” I’ve never accepted the idiocy pushed on Fox News that the U.S. is a “right of center” country, but I also never realized until recently how undisciplined we’ve become as a government-dependent society. Other social democratic countries focus attention on soaring public debts. We by contrast just ask the state to pay for more stuff, which in the end we finance out of our earnings or cover with Chinese loans.  I don’t believe for a moment this problem is confined to minorities. The 74 percent of those surveyed who are against our minimally penny-pinching governor includes far more than minority discontent.

I began noticing this intensified craving for more and bigger government programs during my later years as a professor. It was obvious by then that my students associated the welfare state with endless goodies, of which education loans would be only the first in a string of expected favors. I came to understand why the young, once employed, didn’t resent paying disproportionately for benefits for retirees. They imagined they would be getting even more loot from the state once the time came for them to retire.

Notice my argument is not that we return to being a constitutional society with a strictly limited government. The hour for that is long over, and I may be in a diminishing number of those who regret that’s the case. I just wish we became a better disciplined social democracy, like Canada, which does better in reining in unsustainable government costs. As a free-market economy the U.S. now lags behind at least ten other countries, according to the Index of Economic Freedom, and has been falling during the last five years. The contention that unlike Europeans we don’t accept a large welfare state is malarkey. What makes us different from other “progressive” societies may be the reason they can provide cheap socialized medicine and we probably couldn’t. Other countries expect less from their governments and in return for being looked after as wards of the state recognize there are limits as to what the state should be doing for them.

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