BY R.L. SCHREADLEY

“Each of us needs to feel, sometime in life, that his services are important enough that someone other than the welfare department is willing to pay to keep him alive.”

— Adm. H. G. Rickover, United Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1974.

Have you ever dreamed that you’re a passenger on a runaway train? I have.

Well, something like that. Sometimes in my dream I’m on a rudderless ship that’s been abandoned by captain and crew, a ship that’s headed for the rocks. Both versions are scary, and I’ve woken from both in a cold sweat.

In the one where I’m on a train, I’m struggling to free the conductor’s dead hand, frozen on a wide-open throttle. Suddenly, I’m set upon by other passengers who crowd into the control booth. They shove me aside and tell me to mind my own business. Get back to my seat, they say. “We want to go even faster!” they shout. “To hell with Horseshoe Bend, and the Devil’s Drop. Who’s got the keys to the liquor locker? Drinks are on the house!”

It’s deja vu all over again. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

And that brings me to the little pas de deux being danced by President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner over the so-called fiscal cliff. You have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Is there any real difference between squeezing more money out of “the rich” by raising tax rates, or squeezing the same amount by closing loopholes and paring back other privileges Congress has embedded in our arcane, many-thousand-page tax code?

What makes this media-generated panic over a fiscal cliff all the more ludicrous is that even if we take that lemming-like leap on New Year’s Day, it will do next to nothing to solve our long-term public debt problem and Washington’s fiscal malpractice, malpractice that is adding billions to that debt each and every day. The spending cuts and tax hikes that automatically take effect if Congress and the President fail to act would not come close to balancing the over-bloated federal budget.

As widely reported, the increased revenue Obama wants to extract from “millionaires and billionaires” would take care of government spending for only a few days, and if all the earnings of the top one or two percent were confiscated the budget would still be in the red. The middle class is where the money is, and the middle class is where, sooner rather than later, Washington will be compelled to extend a grasping hand.

In truth, raising taxes, anybody’s taxes, in a chronically weak economy like ours is not just dumb, it’s crazy. You do not have to take my word for this. Go back and listen to or read a transcript of what Obama and his henchmen were saying when the shoe was on the other party’s foot.

Government is not and never has been a wise steward of the nation’s wealth. Evidence of this is overwhelming.

Ask yourself what our country has to show for the $800 billion stimulus package pushed through in the early days of the president’s first term. Remember all the talk about “shovel ready” projects just waiting to be done? All the infrastructure, the roads and bridges, the water and sewage treatment this enormous “investment” was going to buy?

What it actually bought is an enormous expansion of the welfare state — millions more on food stamps and disability claims through the roof. Medicare and Social Security are edging closer to bankruptcy. Work incentives are destroyed. Partly because of all this government generosity (with borrowed money!) we now see an ominous decline in the size of the American workforce. There are now fewer pulling the economy’s wagon than there were when President Obama took office, and if present trends continue there soon will be more riders in that wagon than horses pulling it. Mitt Romney’s politically ill-advised quip about the 47 percent, in actuality, was not far off the mark.

In 1729, the writer and cynic Jonathan Swift published what he called “A Modest Proposal,” “For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.” His satirical proposal was that surplus children should simply be fattened and eaten — social engineering at its disgusting worst.

How long will it be, though, if we continue on our present unsustainable course in America (as in my dream of a rudderless ship, abandoned by captain and crew, headed for the rocks) before currently unthinkable social reforms are proposed, perhaps not with tongue in cheek? Can you imagine a time when a relentlessly growing population of the old, the sick, the infirm, the non-productive become a burden the productive are no longer willing or able to support? No, it couldn’t happen here. Not in America.

Would it?

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.