Votes for Sale
Vote-buying is "where the money's at." Those were words recently spoken in my home state of Kentucky, by some who admitted to knowing that the practice is illegal but as "everyday" as jaywalking. (The Kentucky buyers interviewed were either serving time or awaiting sentencing.) Obviously, money directly exchanged between individuals in payment for votes is a crime. But how indirect (and still legal) can that exchange be before an election is compromised?
Across the country, votes are cast for politicians who, when members of the ruling majority, can do practically anything for anybody in most any way imaginable. (That reality was recently reinforced by some clever word-twisting in a famous Supreme Court ruling.) The president's powers also seem limitless -- at least this one is sure that yes, he can (and has so far gotten away with it) -- especially when "we can't wait" to git-r-done.
We could argue that the founders' original intentions, by granting general and limited federal powers in the Constitution, were to provide for things that benefit the entire country, in a somewhat indirect manner, such as our national defense. And we all do benefit from those things -- the people who pay for them with taxes as well as the other half of the population that does not.
But today we also have numerous federal programs that essentially take money from certain citizens, funnel it through a bureaucracy, then redistribute it to designated others. Which side of those transactions you find yourself on probably affects whether you feel that such programs are constitutional.
Obama said: "[W]hen you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." He wasn't encouraging private charity -- it was his answer to Joe the Plumber's question about raising taxes. Obama was advocating that "it's good" for the government (which doesn't generate any wealth on its own) to take from citizen Peter and give to Paul. (This spreading around feels so "good," in fact, that Paul is getting money that our grandchildren have yet to earn.) Now, Peter might not vote for the politician that pushes such a scheme, but will Paul? Is Paul's vote being bought?
Obama's "fairness" and "you didn't build that" speeches encourage the Pauls and non-builders to vote to make sure they receive their "fair share" (and that Peter and the builders pay theirs, plus "a little bit more"). Campaign ads with stories of deserving Pauls, non-builders, and grannies in wheelchairs pushed over cliffs by heartless Republicans also tug at voters' heartstrings and lever-pulling fingers.
"Government can spend money, but it can't put hope in our hearts[.]" That was Bush, speaking years ago about "compassionate conservatism." Obama seems to push just the opposite sentiment: hope equals government spending.
Some government spending amounts to clever vote-buying dressed in the guise of billions of dollars of economic stimulus, like the kind authorized in the 2009 "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." Hurriedly put together behind closed doors and without any reasonable time for the rest of us to see what was in it, it was obvious that tucked within those thousand-plus pages were lots of winks, handshakes, campaign promises, pet projects, and backroom deals -- money spent in all the right places.
Kentucky is also home to the news of a city councilwoman under investigation for misappropriating taxpayer money. Is this simply another case, like the vote-buyers, of my state living up to its reputation for backwardness and corruption? (In Kentucky's defense, I could argue that we just have great law enforcement. Either way, if you find you must drive through instead of fly over our state, be careful to obey the speed limit.)
The opportunity for corruption and waste permeates every government program -- because all programs, no matter how perfect they may seem, are run by imperfect people. And of every tax dollar collected to pay for government-run projects, the reality is that only pennies make it to the intended destination. Most of the dollar ends up lining bureaucratic pockets along the way.
In my previous article, "Will voters bite?," I noted that the Heritage Foundation's "2012 Index of Dependence on Government" revealed that one in five Americans receives some type of direct government assistance, a record-breaking 67.3 million people. In addition, 49.5% of the population (151.7 million) paid no income tax in 2009, and according to Heritage, "most of that same population receives generous federal benefits." And 70% of federal spending goes to programs that make up the Dependency Index.
Most people, especially in a lousy economy, are unlikely to vote against the party they believe best supports their personal assistance. Are their votes, then, essentially bought by politicians who advocate and maintain such programs? Voters might not be exiting polling places to collect cash outside, like in Kentucky, but they may instead find a government check in their mailbox -- or land a government job, contract, grant, pension, subsidy, tuition, mortgage assistance, insurance, tax credit, food stamps, or an Obama phone.
Economic historian Burton Folsom, in his 2008 book that exposed the real damage of FDR's legacy, New Deal or Raw Deal?, wrote the following as his concluding statements:
Constituents, who previously had little or no direct economic interest in a presidential candidate (except for occasional tariffs and infrequent subsidies), now had many reasons to look at what presidential candidates were promising to do with the increased tax revenue flowing into the federal treasury. Would different voting groups receive more than they paid out? That question led many voters to look more closely at money promised than at the integrity of the presidential contenders.
Which seems a studious way of saying that voters, after the enactment of New Deal-type programs, began thinking, "Which candidate is waiting outside the polling booth to give me something?" Or, as they might say in Kentucky, "Where's the vote-buyin' at?"
Some quotes have been attributed to Tocqueville along the lines that a democracy will last only until politicians discover they can bribe the public with the public's money, or a majority of voters discover they can vote themselves the treasury.
Have we reached both tipping points? After this election, assuming there are still enough Peters to outvote the Pauls, we must push for an end to the spending and corruption. The road we're on might seem to be lined with good intentions and fair-share payouts outside the voting booths, but it actually leads to the destruction of the booths and the nation that established them in the first place.