Mr. DeLay Goes to Washington
By Ernest Partridge
Co-Editor, "The Crisis Papers."
August 4, 2003
Who is better qualified to spend your money,
you or the government in Washington?
George W. Bush
Those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which
might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and
ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
This was an important day in the life of Congressman Tom DeLay (R.
Texas). He had to catch an early flight from Houston to Washington, in time
to lead the fight in Congress to protect us all against the encroachment of
"Big Government" in our personal lives.
And so, upon awaking to his clock-radio, he learned from the US Weather
Service that the flying weather was ideal, but that later in the week a
tropical storm was likely to hit Houston. So he made a note to have the
storm windows put up. He then enjoyed a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs,
certified Grade A by the US Department of Agriculture, and dutifully took
his daily prescriptions, pronounced safe and effective by the Food and Drug
Administration. While at the table, he checked the stock quotes in the
morning paper, assured by the Securities and Exchange Commission that he had
not been swindled. On the way to the airport, he stopped at the bank to take
out some pocket money, and was not at all surprised to find that his account
was intact, as guaranteed by The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation .
His flight took off on time and without incident, after the aircraft had
been certified as safe, and his flight cleared for take-off, by personnel of
the Federal Aviation Agency.
Three hours later, Tom DeLay arrived at "Reagan National Airport"
safe, healthy and financially secure, thanks to all the above "big
government bureaucracies" and still others too numerous to mention.
Firm in his conviction that his fellow taxpayers were "better qualified
than the government to spend their own money," DeLay then led the
successful fight to return $1.3 trillion of federal taxes "to the
people" (more than half of it to the wealthiest two-percent of
"Who is better qualified to spend your money – you or the federal
government?" George Bush' challenge came to mind recently, as I was
watching the movie, "The Perfect Storm." Because the Captain chose
to ignore the warnings of the National Weather Service, the "Andrea
Gail" went down with the loss of all hands. Other crews, less
dismissive of "big government bureaucracy" paid heed and survived.
And when a sailboat, caught in the storm, was about to sink, the Coast
Guard, answering their distress call, rescued the helpless crew. It is
doubtful that, at that moment, any of those rescued sailors felt that this
big government agency was less qualified than they to deal with the
This citizen's debt of gratitude to "big government" came
very close to home in late October 2003 -- specifically, within 100 feet of
"home." Then, "The Old Fire" consumed 91 thousand acres of federal,
state, and private land in the San Bernardino mountains. The fire
almost surrounded the cluster of homes in our neighborhood, and only the
combined, coordinated and professional effort of the US Forest Service and
state and local fire fighters saved our homes. We were ordered off the
mountain while these "big government bureaucracies" did their work --
magnificently. (See "When it Burns, It
Presumably, Mr. Delay's solution would be for each of us
private citizens to take a valiant stand by our individual houses, garden
hoses in hand. Who can doubt that if we tried that, all our houses
would have been reduced to heaps of ashes, and we all would have ended up as
No question about it: When our mountain caught fire,
"the government in Washington" -- and Sacramento, and San Bernardino -- were
"better qualified" to spend our money.
And so we are led to ask: are we as individuals, or the government, better
— deliver the mail.
— predict the weather
— ensure that our food is safe to eat
— protect the lives and property of the citizens
— determine the safety and efficacy of our medicines
— monitor and respond to epidemics
— identify and mitigate environmental pollution
— support "economically useless" basic scientific research
Speaking for myself, I am not prepared to devote the time
and expense, or to gain the expertise, to set up a laboratory in my basement
to determine if my food and drugs are safe and effective. Nor can I run off
to Wall Street and carry out a private investigation to find out if my
investments are safe from violations of the securities laws, nor am I
qualified to check the innards of a passenger jet to see if it is
flight-worthy, and I have no idea how to direct air traffic.
In all these cases, and countless more, I will readily concede that I am
less qualified than the appropriate government agencies to "spend my
Neither are these proper functions for "the private sector," for
in each case, these are regulatory activities – the enforcement of
laws and regulations upon self-interested parties in behalf of the general
public. It makes no more sense to "privatize" government
regulation and services, than it would be to have the referees of a
pro-football game in the employ of one of the teams, or to have the police
force under the control of organized crime. (Alas, not unheard of).
A case in point: in 1962, the pharmaceutical industry put pressure on the
Food and Drug Administration to release the sedative drug, thalidomide, for
general distribution. That pressure was steadfastly resisted by an FDA
"bureaucrat," Dr. Francis Kelsey, who thus spared thousand of
infants from birth defects. Unfortunately, similar "government
interference" was not in place to restrain Pfizer from marketing Vioxx and
Another case: in 1934, the federal government established the Federal
Communications Commission, in order to regulate "traffic" in the
broadcast spectrum. Significantly, the FCC was enacted at the insistence of
the broadcast industry, which finally came to realize that without a neutral
agency to assign frequencies, electronic chaos and cacophony would result.
With all these manifest services afforded to all United States citizens by
the federal government, why do Tom DeLay and his political allies regard
that same government as if it were an oppressor?
The answer may be found in his pre-political career. Before he ran for
public office, Tom DeLay was in the pesticide business. In that business, he
came face-to-face with "big government interference," when the
Environmental Protection Agency told him that he could no longer sell or use
such pesticides as DDT. This regulation, the result of many years and
millions of dollars of government sponsored scientific research, benefited
song birds, birds of prey, and oh yes, young children and other vulnerable
critters. At the same time, this "big government decree" was a
damned nuisance to the chemical industry and to pest controllers such as
DeLay, who came to refer to the EPA as a "Gestapo.".
What business is it of "big government" to tell Tom DeLay that he
can't poison his neighbors and the ecosystem, as he goes about his business
of eliminating "pests"?
The answer is as close as the founding documents of our Republic. "To
secure these rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,
states the Declaration of Independence, "governments are instituted
among men." And in the Preamble to the Constitution, we find that the
government is established, among other things, to "promote the general
If it is the legitimate function of government to protect the lives,
liberties and property of its citizens, then it is clearly the function of
government to regulate the activities of private individuals and
corporations that threaten these lives, liberties and property. As history
testifies, entrepreneurs like Tom DeLay do not like to be told that the
internal organs of unconsenting citizens are inappropriate catchments of
their chemical residues. Meat packers don't like to have government
inspectors around while they are making sausages. Drug companies do not like
to be told that they can't put opium in their cough medicine, and that they
cannot put a drug on the market before it has been proven both safe and
effective. Mine owners have fewer qualms than government inspectors about
putting their workers' lives in peril. Broadcasters don't like to be told
that the public airwaves that they are freely given must contain some
"public service" content, or that opinions other than their own
deserve a fair hearing.
And most conspicuously, the Enron Corporation found federal regulation so
distasteful that it arranged to disarm the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, while investing
millions in "gifts" to pundits and in "contributions" to
members of Congress. Then the senior corporate officers "took the money
and ran," leaving thousands of their employees without their life
Make no mistake: if we abandon federal regulation and oversight (called by
conservatives "government control of our lives"), this does not
mean that "control" will necessarily devolve to each of us
ordinary citizens. As isolated private individuals, we are all too often
ill-equipped to protect our interests against the assaults of impersonal
corporate power. The history of the late nineteenth century bears out this
observation. Absent the protections of "big government," our food
will once again be tainted, and our drugs again unsafe and ineffective. Pest
controllers like Tom DeLay will once again spread poison on to the land,
heedless of the "side-effects" once the primary objective of
"zapping the bugs" has been achieved. The free and diverse press
which Jefferson regarded as essential to democracy and as (take note!) an
indispensable constraint upon the abuses of governmental power, will be
replaced by the monotone voice of media conglomerates in the service of
wealth and power.
One must be deliberately ignorant not to notice that we have traveled far
along this road in the past two decades, as the (so called)
"conservatives" have scored significant victories in their
campaign against the "abuses of big government." Only an alert,
outraged and active citizenry can undo the damage.
We have much more to say about the benign functions of
"big government," along with some reflections on the abuses of
government, in our "Kill
Libertarians argue that "the law of torts" (compensation for
damages) is superior to government regulation as a means to deter assaults
upon our individual rights to life, liberty and property. For a reply, see
Liberty for Some."