For most of the life of America, and when it grew fastest, government spent just a few hundred dollars per person. Today, the federal government alone spends $10,000. Politicians talk about cuts, but the cuts rarely happen. The political class always needs more.
I see the pressure. All day, Congress listens to people who say they need and deserve help.
The cost of any one program per taxpayer is small, but the benefits are concentrated on well-organized interest groups. It's tough for a weak politician to say no.
But maybe things are changing. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., believes that "more and more people in America are beginning to wake up to the fact that this thing is coming unglued."
I asked Ryan why his colleagues say it's OK to spend more. Are they just stupid? Don't they care? Or are they pandering for votes?
"Pandering could be a part of it," he said. "But . . . they believe that the government should be far larger." They are taught that by the progressives who rule academia, like Columbia University Professor Marc Lamont Hill.
"We have to make sure that the most vulnerable people are always protected," Hill says. Everyone benefits when we pay a little bit more to create universal healthcare. Everyone benefits when we pay a little more to have better public education systems."
Progressives use the word "we" too often. When I argued the that "we" and "government" are not the same, he said, "We always talk about the government like it's this monster in the hills that comes down and hands things out and takes our tax money."
Those are "libertarian fairy tales," Hill says. "In real life, the government is us."
Government is not "us." Well, it's us in the sense that we pay the bills. But it ain't us. It's them, the policy elite and their patrons.
What percent of the economy does Hill think government should be?
"For me, housing, healthcare, and education, in addition to national defense, are things that the government must provide for people. So if that means 20 percent, I'm OK with it. If it means 30 percent, I'm OK with it. I don't think it'll ever get that big."
Give me a break. It's already at 40 percent!
All that spending is taken from your and my pockets — some in taxes, much in sneakier ways like government borrowing. The national debt — now $13 trillion — simply represents future taxes or the erosion of the dollar.
Yet progressives want us to pay more. One woman activist told our camera, "It costs to live in a civilized society, and we all need to pay our fair share."
Our "fair share" sounds good. Progressives say taking from the rich to help the poor is simply fair.
I put that to Arthur Brooks, who heads the American Enterprise Institute.
"No, the fairest system is the one that rewards the makers in society as opposed to rewarding the takers in society."
Brooks wrote "The Battle," which argues that the fight between free enterprise and big government will shape our future.
"The way that our culture is moving now is toward more redistribution, toward more progressive taxation, exempting more people from paying anything, and loading more of the taxes onto the very top earners in our society."
But it seems "kind" to take it away from wealthier people and give it to those who need it more.
"Actually, it's not," Brooks says. "The government does not create wealth. It uses wealth that's been created by the private sector."
He warns that "Americans are in open rebellion today because the government is threatening to take us from a maker nation into taker nation status."
Americans in "open rebellion"? I'm skeptical. Handouts create fierce constituencies. The tea party movement is wonderful, but it takes strength to say no to government freebies. When I've said to tea partyers, "We should cut Medicare, eliminate agriculture subsidies, kill entire federal agencies," the enthusiasm usually fades from their eyes.
I hope that I am wrong and Brooks is right.
John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit www.johnstossel.com.
© Creators Syndicate Inc.