January 15, 2023 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Last month, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, or Omnibus package, demonstrated that the majority of politicians have one-track minds. They identify problems, pass legislation, and send the consequences down the line. 

In “The Coming Slavery” (1884), Herbert Spencer observed that legislators often fail to perceive that they have set in motion a train on a destructive course. Given the political momentum, he argues, “The question of questions for the politician should ever be—’What type of social structure am I tending to produce?'”

If most of our politicians have failed to ask this question, citizens should remind them of it now. Who benefits from the $1.65 trillion omnibus package? How does it enhance or restrict freedom? And how do spending programs affect the mindset of future generations? The answers should make everyone reach for the brakes. 

An Equitable Platform

One problem is that the current appropriations package is full of programs that redistribute wealth to advance a target moving faster than a bullet train: “equity.” Voters’ race, geographical location, and employment significantly shape their benefits.

Consider the beneficiary of one of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s earmarks: $477,000 to the Equity Institute in Rhode Island. This “education-based nonprofit organization” works to “cultivate antiracist, people-centered communities for all learners.” To do so, the institute  advances “an evolving definition of education equity,” insisting, “criteria for success when advancing Educational Equity must be based on the quality of individual and community life as opposed to standardized test scores.” If those criteria are opaque, the government’s criteria are more so.

The “Unleashing American Innovators Act of 2022,” for instance, amends existing legislation to enable the Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the US Patent and Trademark Office to encourage innovation and new patents among particular groups. It ends the preferred list with “any geographic group of innovators that the Director may determine to be underrepresented in patent filings.” The Director may spend your tax dollars based less on the quality of invention than on who innovates and where

Senator Bernie Sanders is also focused on a particular group in his $50 million Worker Ownership and Readiness and Knowledge Act. Sanders introduced the legislation in 2009. His colleagues then balked, but this year nearly everyone boarded the omnitrain.

Under this act, “The secretary shall establish with the Department of Labor an Employee Ownership Initiative to promote employee ownership.” Sanders calls it “modest but effective legislation” that will “go a long way to ensuring workers have the tools they need to have a seat at the table they worked to build.” 

The program identifies “key groups, such as retiring business owners, senior managers, labor organizations, trade associations, community organizations, and economic development organizations,” all of which it educates on the means and benefits of employee ownership. But what are the long-term consequences of promoting this shift, apart from, of course, solidifying a voter bloc?  

In its current format, this legislation seems innocuous because it is voluntary: there is outreach, education, and assistance. What Spencer emphasizes, however, is that what begins modestly expands into massive programming with increasing legislation and escalating costs: a runaway train with no brakes.   

Tracks to Serfdom

Perhaps the future beneficiaries of the innovation grants will be delighted to share the metaphorical tables they invent with their employees, who then become owners. Or, perhaps Spencer was right that the more the government does, the less incentive people have to invent:

Each generation is made less familiar with the attainment of desired ends by individual actions or private combinations, and more familiar with the attainment of them by governmental agencies; until, eventually, governmental agencies come to be thought of as the only available agencies.

Will the next generation simply plod down the well-worn tracks of government assistance for every endeavor? And how much will that funding increase over the next decades?

Such a trend has long-term consequences financially as well as intellectually. As the government’s gravy train gains momentum, so does government’s incentive to raise taxes to fuel it.  Individuals have less money to apply to their own interests and must work more hours every day to pay for socialism. This was, for Spencer, “the coming slavery”:

it matters not whether his master is a single person or a society. If, without option, he has to labour for the society, and receives from the general stock such portion as the society awards him, he becomes a slave to the society. Socialistic arrangements necessitate an enslavement of this kind, and towards such an enslavement many recent measures, and still more the measures advocated, are carrying us.

Without claiming “enslavement” today, we can acknowledge that the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 will increase the national debt, as well as the political momentum toward the governmentalization of social affairs.   

Halting that process requires taxpayers to exhibit the same savvy shown by Agatha Christie’s legendary Hercule Poirot. The detective, faced with a body on the Orient Express, finally realized that literally all the passengers on that train had a hand in the murder. Likewise, voters must accept that the majority of our elected representatives supported the passage of the omnibus, whether openly or through earmarks.

It’s time for us to acknowledge the society they are creating and to hold them accountable. If our current legislators won’t apply the brakes on this train, we need to do so in the next election.

Caroline Breashears

Caroline Breashears

Dr. Caroline Breashears is a Professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Caroline received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and specializes in eighteenth-century British literature. Recent publications include Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the “Scandalous Memoir” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and articles in Aphra Behn Online and the International Journal of Pluralistic and Economics Education.

She was recently an Adam Smith Scholar at Liberty Fund, and her current research focuses on Adam Smith and literature. She teaches courses on fairy tales, eighteenth-century British Literature, and Jane Austen.

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