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Cutting government slowly but surely

By W. James Antle III
web posted August 23, 2004

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 prefer.

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 into action.

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.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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