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Rediscovering government's limits

By W. James Antle III
web posted September 26, 2005

It was a strange lesson to take from 9/11, but it was the one that hardened into conventional wisdom: The federal government's failure to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon demonstrated once and for all the impracticality of limited government. Americans relied on firefighters and government rescue workers to save lives that day; so must we continue to rely on government more generally in a dangerous, uncertain age.

Another way of looking at it might have been to accept that since government cannot do all things equally well, perhaps it ought to be pared down to its core functions – police, fire protection, immigration control, national defense, intelligence – and shed those costly functions that compete for dollars with its legitimate purposes. We did not a face a choice between anarchy and a return to the era of big government.

It was a perfect opportunity to restate the case for limited government. It shouldn't have been too hard to ask voters whether they wanted their tax dollars spent on protecting Americans from terrorism and aggression or midnight basketball.

Alas, it was a missed opportunity. To be sure, the federal government has since 9/11 increased its spending on national defense, homeland security (a category most Americans once assumed was the natural combination of defense and law-enforcement expenditures) and border patrols. But spending on virtually everything else, from pork-barrel projects to the biggest new entitlement in 30 years, has also risen dramatically. We are in the midst of the biggest federal spending binge since the Great Society. We decided we could have our war and federally subsidized prescription drugs, too.

Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster and far more predictable than the 9/11 attacks, but it uncovered government failures at all levels, by both parties. Yet once again, the lesson learned has not been that government should focus on its core functions. Despite a valiant effort by congressional conservatives to offset hurricane relief spending with budget cuts elsewhere, the Republican leadership wants to add every dime to the federal budget deficit.

According to some estimates, costs of rebuilding New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas devastated by the hurricane could reach $200 billion. These estimates have a tendency to be on the low side. Yet many politicians have concluded that we can have our disaster relief spending and our federally funded bike trails, too.

When government fails, it is rewarded with even more money and power. Those charged with stewardship of taxpayer dollars instead avoid setting even the most basic priorities. But this failure of budgetary discipline comes at a considerable cost, producing a government that is less competent and more of a drag on the American people.

Republicans should be particularly wary of these costs. President Bush's tax cuts cannot long survive a federal spending spree of indefinite duration. As the profligacy mounts and the deficit expands, the temptation to spare middle-class entitlements and penalize an illusory wealthiest 1 percent will grow. That many such tax increases will prove both fiscally and economically self-defeating will do little to diminish their appeal.

Bill Clinton, in an interview with his former aide George Stephanopoulos, showed his Democratic successors how it can be done. He noted that we are essentially borrowing money from the Chinese and other foreign powers to fight a war in Iraq. In that context, Clinton argued, why not raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans instead?

In the minority, Republicans acted as the Democrats' fiscally responsible adult supervision. Running the show in Washington, the GOP has put itself in a position where it can be lectured on fiscal responsibility by Bill Clinton. The party has shirked its duty to control spending.

Conservatives have consoled themselves with strategies to reduce the demand for government rather than its supply, with free-market entitlement reforms that will cultivate the investor class. But with Social Security reform stalled, the president's political capital depleted and tax cuts under siege, big-government conservatism has written a check it can't cash.

The GOP may yet luck out of this particular predicament. The costs of rebuilding may prove to be as exaggerated as early claims about the death toll. Other spending priorities may begin to reassert themselves with time. If Bush holds the line on taxes and the economic impact of Hurricane Katrina is less severe than the initial dire forecasts, growth may once again swell the revenues flowing into federal coffers.

But the problems inherent in allowing government to expand beyond its competence and spend beyond its means cannot be ignored forever. Until Washington reexamines its priorities, it is the taxpayer who will end up being shortchanged.

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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