But even as these programs become unsustainable, they have become so powerful — there are so many interests and industries that grow rich on these programs, and so many families for whom these programs have become the cornerstone of what little financial security they have — that they cannot be touched. One way to tell when an elephant has morphed into a shark: when pundits and politicians start describing a government program as a ‘third rail’: you touch it, you die.
The Great White Shark is a menace that cannot be controlled. The program has gone rogue: the Army Corps of Engineers isn’t just building pointless dams. It is building bad dams. The agricultural subsidies aren’t just encouraging farmers to plant wasteful crops; by subsidizing corn ethanol they are contributing to food price inflation that threatens political stability in countries like Egypt. But just as the programs are most in need of reform, reform becomes impossible. If you try to stop Fannie Mae from tempting poor urbanites into ruinous mortgages that will leave them worse off than before while bringing the global economy to the edge of ruin, the race lobby (aided and abetted by the real estate lobby) will attack you as a racist and an enemy of the American Dream.
The problem today is that we are looking not just at one or two government programs that have succumbed to elephantiasis or turned into sharks; the progressive complex of social and economic policy as a whole has reached this point. Today many of our New Deal and Great Society programs are either elephants or sharks. They either lead us to misallocate scarce resources in ineffective ways or they threaten us with ruin by becoming politically untouchable budget busters.
Progressivism itself, and not simply the individual government programs it spawns, is moving through the same cycle of life.