Cutting Government Slowly but Surely
By W. James Antle
I often write about the need to return to
the system of limited government envisioned by our Founding Fathers and codified
by the U.S. Constitution. Nice as
this is in theory, how could it be made to happen in practice? A longtime reader and I recently exchanged e-mails in which
we pondered that very question.
Ideally, I would like to see the federal
government divest itself of every function not authorized by the text of the
Constitution. This would not just
protect our liberty, private property and even our culture.
It would restore the rule of law and go a long way toward making honest
men out of the people who comprise our political class.
There are political parties and candidates who run on platforms
advocating precisely that and these entities play a vital educational role
worthy of support.
Alas, these parties’ presidential
candidates only win a few hundred thousand votes while the American people have
arrived at a consensus in favor of government far larger than what the
Constitution authorizes. The sad
fact is that for anyone likely to actually hold office or wield power, strict
adherence to the supreme law of the land would amount to political suicide.
Over time, principled constitutionalists can
strive to alter this consensus and reinstate constitutional government.
But in the meantime, is there anything that can practically be done to
advance the cause of smaller government here and now?
My longtime correspondent, a bright fellow
who possesses a rare combination of political savvy and skepticism of the modern
state, suggests that candidates should at the bare minimum be expected to use
small-government rhetoric (think Ronald Reagan) and take incremental steps
toward making whatever cuts are politically possible. Let the leviathan “bleed from a thousand cuts” if need
be, he suggests.
A Republican who tried to repeal the entire
welfare state in one fell swoop would be swiftly voted out of office, if by some
miracle he managed to get there in the first place.
But is it not feasible for a Republican to try to cut the federal budget
by 2 to 3 percent per year? Slowly
trim a percentage point here and there from tax rates? At the very least, stop discretionary spending increases in
excess of inflation plus population growth and then work our way down?
I will never punish an elected official for
not cutting taxes as much as I would like, or reducing spending by the amount I
would prefer. But that isn’t
currently the Republicans’ approach. Instead,
the GOP at best tries to increase spending by less than the amount the Democrats
The problem with that approach is that our
politics continue to progress in the same direction.
Government continues to grow and the only variable between the two
parties is the speed with which in consumes more of our income and the spending
priorities. This is not an
improvement; it is just foot-dragging.
The right in this country has succeeded in
making it as slow and painful as possible for the left to drag us toward
massive, European-style welfare states. But
without a fundamental change in direction, this will be seen as a delaying
tactic rather than a permanent achievement.
The implosion of our entitlements system and the oncoming collision
between the alternative minimum tax and real-income bracket creep portend a
return to pre-Reagan tax rates unless daring action is taken.
A good place to start would be meaningful
tax and spending limitations. The
taxpayers’ bill of rights (TABOR) provisions in Colorado helped the state
avoid the fiscal calamities experienced by other states during the recessions.
Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2 ½ in Massachusetts have
helped provide some semblance of a check on those states’ rapacious
governments – if only they could be tightened to curb Boston and
Sacramento’s ability to levy other taxes.
Like the frog being cooked slowly in boiling
water, government growth has proceeded without much resistance because it has
taken place too gradually for taxpayers to notice.
Perhaps similar slow but steady progress can be made in shrinking
government, providing needed relief for taxpayers while trimming programs too
slowly to goad the beneficiaries of pork-barrel projects and corporate welfare
Even if a modest but real incremental approach to shrinking government didn’t get us as far as some libertarians and conservatives would like, at least it would be a step in the right direction.
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