Acton Commentary

Government Greed Needs an 'Occupation' Too


When it comes to political crookedness and graft, Louisiana is infamous. The New York Times just profiled Edwin Edwards, whose reputation earned him the nickname “Fast Eddie.” The former governor of the Pelican State recently released after a 10-year prison sentence for racketeering naturally wants back in the political ring. A resident displayed the love many still have for the former lawmaker, telling the Times, “We all knew he was going to steal, but he told us he was going to do it.”

Edwards serves as one of the most flagrant examples of government greed, enriching countless cronies along with himself. But he is not alone. The Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on “corporate greed,” but the public sector variety, though it draws less media attention, is equally reprehensible.

Eminent domain abuse, bloated public pensions, deficit spending—which simply generate calls for future tax increases—and a tax code that discourages saving and investing, are just a few examples of government greed. The 19th century British preacher and evangelist Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “You say, 'If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.' You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.”

His audience was the individual. But Spurgeon’s warning applies to a government demanding more wealth that should remain private and more of the public trust. Government excess and the way in which it mercilessly suctions revenue away from Main Street are alarming indeed. According to The World Bank's annual Doing Business report, the United States no longer ranks as a top 10 country for starting a business; Rwanda is higher on the list. Half a century ago, business rapidly mobilized to help launch the greatest army of liberation in world history; now the nation’s private sector faces an uncertain future.

Today the Occupy Wall Street movement and its echo chamber in the media denounce corporate America. But a smaller headline in Bloomberg News about Washington edging out San Jose, Calif., as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area raised eyebrows, too. The total compensation package for a federal employee in the beltway now exceeds $126,000. There are many hard working and patriotic federal employees, but as the federal government payroll increasingly coincides with a diminishing private sector, government employees are rapidly moving closer to the 1 percent.

More disturbing perhaps is a quote from the president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who declared, “Wall Street has moved to K Street.” The mammoth increase in federal laws and regulation has generated an upsurge in the number of lobbyists and lawyers to manage the federal government’s far-reaching bureaucratic tentacles.

Greed of all sorts should be denounced. Unique to neither business nor government, its perennial presence illuminates the unchanged heart of humankind. For that reason the Founders understood that the power of government must be limited and virtue magnified. During the benediction at the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner last week, Rev. Ren Broekhuizen offered this rightly famous quote from Abraham Kuyper:  “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!’” He implored the assembled to mount their own righteous “occupation” of Wall Street, the government, business, and all of society.

Just last week, the 84-year-old former governor Edwin Edwards joked with well wishers and basked in the limelight at a parade during the International Rice Festival in Crowley, La. That same day Gov. Bobby Jindal coasted to reelection against a crowded field with nearly 66 percent of the vote. Jindal’s approval in part stems from sweeping reforms to antiquated laws that bred government greed and corruption. After Katrina and the BP oil spill, it was all the more apparent to Louisianans that the old way of doing things was toxic. Greed and corruption intensify suffering in a time of crisis.

As America faces its current economic crisis, Louisiana’s experience is instructive. Solutions can be found not in centralized power and burdensome regulation, which facilitate and reward government greed, but in framing sensible laws and reinvigorating a culture of virtue in business and government alike.