Glen Harlan Reynolds wrote Are we living in the Hunger Games?, 11/27/12 in USA Today.
Washington is rich not because it makes valuable things, but because it is powerful. With virtually everything subject to regulation, it pays to spend money influencing the regulators. As P.J. O’Rourke famously observed: “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.” But it’s not just bags-of-cash style corruption. Most of the D.C. boom is from lobbyists and PR people, and others who are retained to influence what the government does. It’s a cold calculation: You’re likely to get a much better return from an investment of $1 million on lobbying than on a similar investment in, say, a new factory or better worker training.
So Washington gets fat, and it does so on money taken from the rest of the country: Either directly, in the form of taxes, or indirectly in the form of money that otherwise would have gone to that factory or training program.
Under the original Constitutional plan, the federal government’s powers were to be few, and mostly concerned with external relations. Under those circumstances, the risk of corruption was comparatively low. Nearly all regulation would come from state governments. They might be corrupted — since they’d be the only ones worth corrupting — but problems would be compartmentalized (corruption in Rhode Island wouldn’t have much effect on Connecticut, much less Utah) and disciplined by competition with other states.
Well, it’s been quite a while since things worked that way; things started go go downhill with the federal expansion under the New Deal, and then really took off after the “regulatory explosion” under President Nixon, who created such entities as the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
It’s no coincidence that as the federal government morphed from an entity that did a few highly visible things well, to one that did a whole lot of not-so-visible things less well, respect for the federal government plummeted even as the political class’ wealth climbed.
That’s where we are now, with a capital city that looks more and more like that of an imperial power where courtiers and influence-peddlers abound. Want to do something about it? Don’t secede. Return to the Constitution.