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The Cost of “Free” Federal Money

The small town (5000 people in an area the size of Manhattan) where I live is going to have to replace its street signs—which are quite new and perfectly serviceable. Why? Because the federal government says so, that’s why. Needless to say, the federal government is not supplying the money needed, merely mandating the change.  It’s not a lot of money in a small town with a relatively small number of local street corners. But in New York City it means replacing 250,900 street signs. At a hundred and ten bucks a pop, that adds up.

What’s wrong with our current street signs? They’re in all capital letters and the geniuses at the Department of Transportation have determined that street signs in upper- and lower-case letters (and a particular typeface—“Clearview”) are fractionally easier to read and thus a driver’s attention is diverted by a few milliseconds less than with the older signs. Multiply that by the billions of miles American drive every day and there should be fewer accidents.

I’ll presume that that is true. My objection is with the fact that the Constitution does not give the federal government authority over highway signage. But because the federal government hands out money to the states for highway construction and maintenance, it can—and does—attach conditions, such as mandating the typeface of street signs and requiring a drinking age of 21.  These federal payments to states have been the royal road to ever-increasing federal control of American life and have gone a long way to reducing the once sovereign states to mere federal administrative districts. The late Rep. Bella Abzug even wanted to withhold federal payments to states that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. Her idea, thankfully, got nowhere, but the fact that the idea—a breath-taking change in the constitutional balance—even surfaced is evidence of how far the balance had already shifted.

State politicians find federal money irresistible. After all, they get credit for building the new bridge or repaving the highway and Uncle Sam gets the bill. But every dollar of federal money is paid for in lost power and sovereignty. In the long run that makes the “free” federal money very expensive indeed.



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