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Does government always betray the future?

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Bradley C Bower/AP/File

(Read caption) In this 2005 file photo, trays of printed social security checks waited to be mailed from the US Treasury's Financial Management services facility in Philadelphia. Do retiring workers in welfare nations always ask the government for benefits that they haven't saved for?

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Government’s role in an economy has never been properly explained. We will have a go at it ourselves. In a word, government betrays the future.

Government is a profoundly reactionary institution. It always favors its current clients – the present generation of taxpayers – over its clients of the future (who don’t pay taxes and don’t lobby). It provides protection against foreign invaders and domestic troublemakers. It also attempts to give its clients protection against the future.

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Taxpayers want government to protect their existing assets…their businesses…their claims…their jobs…their franchises against all threats. In the modern world, most of those threats come in the form of economic and technological change. That’s why taxpayers demand subsidies and bailouts. It’s also why they like regulation. Anything that will keep change from diminishing what they’ve got.

A properly-functioning economy, as Schumpeter described it, is a process of incremental growth and also of creative destruction…in which old industries, old technologies and old institutions are blown up by change. This is what people pay their taxes to avoid. The present generation wants the government to “do something” to protect them from this process. It’s why they are perfectly happy to see the government take over the whole economy, if necessary, in order to prevent capitalism from happening.

What’s more, the current generation of retiring taxpayers in all the welfare states hopes to get something it cannot afford – pension and health care benefits above and beyond what it has saved for. How can it do so? Only by borrowing from future revenues – that is to say, by putting a claim on income that has not been earned yet…much of it by people who do not even exist yet. Government, again favoring live voters over those who are dead or unborn, goes along. In the case of the US, the newborn child in 2010 faces about $170,000 worth of bills – his share of the net financial obligations of the federal government.

Good luck getting him to pay up!

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