When a man first veers permanently from a virtuous path, Southerners call it "breaking bad," which is also the name of the AMC television series created by former "X-Files" producer Vince Gilligan. The show, currently in its second season, serves as a fitting metaphor for our state and federal governments' slide down the slippery slope of Bailout Mountain and increasing intervention in the private sector. Once character Walter White breaks bad, each illegal and immoral action prompts other illegal and increasingly heinous acts. Similarly, when government betrays free-market principles by throwing money at problems in the private sector rather than allowing the system to right itself, a raft of unintended, negative consequences follows.
A television show about a chemistry teacher moonlighting as a methamphetamine manufacturer may not seem to hold many lessons at first blush, but "Breaking Bad" reveals what can happen when a manqué — a person of unrealized potential — attempts to feather his family's nest with ill-gotten gains after he discovers he has a terminal illness. Viewers can easily substitute White's predicament with the desperate measures and sense of emergency hawked daily by our political class.
As suggested by his name, Walt White is initially a good person (just as many of our elected officials are). Walt accompanies his brother-in-law Hank, an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, on a raid where thousands of dollars in drug money are confiscated. This inspires Walt to apply his chemistry skills to making a quick buck after he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Getting rich quick after it's too late to do it honestly is a path well traversed by our politicians, who prop up dying industries with taxpayer dollars when allowing bankruptcies would have been healthier for all concerned.
Calculating that he needs to raise nearly $800,000 to support his family after his death, White locates a former student and small-time drug dealer and blackmails him into selling White's product on the street. This simple plan, however, is rife with complications. White quickly adapts to the life of a criminal, including theft of methamphetamine ingredients and school laboratory equipment; murder and the comically nauseating disposal of his victims; a double life that requires him to lie repeatedly to his loved ones to cover his crimes; and the graphically depicted human wastage caused by methamphetamine use.
As with government agencies that bestow bailout monies on companies with no assurance that those companies won't return to the trough — in essence acknowledging "in for a penny, in for a pound" — White compounds his crimes in each episode, throwing in his lot with psychos, addicts and dealers. Walt White, meet Bailout Nation. You're both in too deep to quit.
"Breaking Bad" is a cautionary tale of solving problems with hubris rather than judgment. It contains horrendous violence, profanity and drug use, and it will most certainly not be every viewer's cup of tea. But once government takes it upon itself to seek utopian goals, there's an implicit concession that the promised ends justify the tainted means.
The cascade of government handouts is similar to a methamphetamine rush — the euphoria is temporary; the source is artificial; and the end result is a malignant dependency. Walt White serves as a symbol of the adage, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." It's a proverb that our legislators and regulators should take to heart.
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Bruce Edward Walker is communications director for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.