Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Balloon that Would Not Pop

Congress has a valve controlling the ballooning size of the Federal government, and that valve is currently stuck open. The valve is not just the pork that Congresscritters use to buy reelection. The valve is jammed open by the practice of baseline spending, in which the budget for the many Departments and programs of the government is calculated not on what is required, but on the previous budgeted amount. Since there is no incentive for either bureaucrats or appointees to ask for a smaller budget, that amount almost always increases.

When government grows in expenditure, it also grows in authority, sooner or later. If we don't want government to intrude on our liberties, we must not let it spend more money. It doesn't matter if taxes are increased or cut, or if promises to preserve liberty are made. Eventually, a larger government will find a way to extend its power.

Typically, the expansion of power begins by regulating the money being spent. It would be irresponsible use of public funds not to account well for it, after all.

But the way the accounting works usually does very little to account for how the money is spent, but rather is designed to show that it is being spent well. Beneficiaries of government largess are obligated to submit to regular surveys, and as all surveys these are designed to achieve a particular answer: this is a good program, but it needs more money.

Furthermore, the bulk of Federal spending is not "discretionary", which is to say, Congress has effectively put it on autopilot. That means that in order for any Federal program to even stop growing, its loyal proponents have a chance to scream about it to a complicit media. Those who merely want government generally to be smaller have to expend political capital on some particular program which merely costs more than it does good. The proponents of the program often see it as the most important function of government.


It is important to note that advocates of larger government—contemporary liberals, as opposed to classical ones—do not hesitate to advocate expanded government and expanded regulation that is out of proportion to the growth in prosperity and positive liberty. By refusing to stand firm against the contemporary liberal movement, by ceding ground when it does not have to, by adjusting tactics so that classical liberals perpetually fight on the contemporary liberals’ favorite battlefields, the classical liberal movement risks running out of the intellectual energy necessary to keep government small and to increase prosperity and positive liberty.
Our strategy is always to talk about how much government can shrink, in the heretofore vain hope that it will fail to grow as quickly as it otherwise would. Perhaps there's another avenue. But I think the balloon will continue to grow until it meets some constraint. For Americans, that constraint was supposed to be giving the House of Representatives, those Federal politicians closest to the People, the sole power to initiate tax increases. Now that the majority has learned that it can tax the minority, that constraint has turned into a catalyst.

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