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Does Anybody Really Know How to Limit Government?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

They said they'd keep the federal government strictly limited—and they failed. No, I don't mean the Republicans in Congress. I’m talking about a far more esteemed group of intellectuals: the Federalists, who urged the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Don't get me wrong: Madison, Hamilton, et al. were brilliant men, but upon rereading some of the Federalist Papers recently, I was struck by how tragically wrong these founding giants were in some crucial details about the destiny of our nation. They predicted, for instance, that a confederation of states would if anything tend toward dissolution rather than the accretion of centralized power. They drew evidence on this point from ancient Greece, and from the more recent American experience under the Articles of Confederation. Likewise, they predicted that the taxing power of the central government would never be significant compared to the individual states, since what few federal tax collectors there were were likely to be arrayed solely at the shoreline collecting tariffs from boats engaged in international trade. They also reassured a suspicious populace that the central government's army would not be a threat, since, it seemed obvious at the time, if the central government did its job right, there would never be a need for a standing army.

The constituency for smaller government is tiny: the religious right doesn't much care about the topic, and even the mainstream business community doesn't much care as long as they get some of the government handouts.

In our own time, the growth of the welfare state seems inexorable. It's enough to make one wish that Clarence Thomas’s dissent in the 1995 U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton Supreme Court decision—in which he argued for the ongoing supremacy of state over federal law—had carried the day. Nobody knows exactly how to make government shrink down to the level the founders contemplated, and various factions on or affiliated with the right point fingers at each other for failing to get the job done. A Nobel laureate economist, James Buchanan, has suggested that we just need to get people of good will together, possibly in a new constitutional convention, where they can agree upon better, more logical rules for government that will prevent budget-busting irresponsibility. The Cato Institute's David Boaz jokes, though, that the central government ended up bigger at the original constitutional convention and there's certainly no reason to think things would go any better this time, given the modern crop of politicians.

I'm not even sure anymore that the congressional Republicans, who've taken such a beating this year, are the real culprits, though. A friend who works on Capitol Hill tells me he finds it impressive that Republicans ever win any elections, given that the Democrats' highly popular philosophy is basically: "Free stuff!" Scary as it might be to contemplate, the public may be even more socialistic than spendthrift congressional Republicans are, and those congressmen aren't likely to stick their necks out too far if lavish spending on a district-by-district basis can help them get reelected. The constituency for smaller government is tiny: the religious right doesn't much care about the topic, and even the mainstream business community doesn't much care as long as they get some of the government handouts. Ryan Sager’s The Elephant in the Room, and Tim Carney’s The Big Ripoff, make these points in depressingly persuasive detail.

So how does one make the smaller-government constituency larger and more effective?

In search of some compromise between principles and pragmatism, I recently joined the Republican Liberty Caucus, an organization that tries to steer the GOP back toward its libertarian roots (this is not only the party of Reaganomics but the party that ended slavery, after all). But even a group like the RLC, designed to build bridges, ends up breaking up into factions over some of the same unresolved issues that face other would-be government-shrinkers: within weeks of my joining, the New York branch of the group had fallen into an internal debate as fractious as the memorable, fictional squabbling among religious sects in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Amidst such confusion, one sign of hope may be a group that has its roots in that 1995 Supreme Court decision I mentioned earlier. That 5-4 decision forbade individual states from putting term limits on U.S. senators and representatives, leaving the organization called U.S. Term Limits, which had backed that idea, without a clear purpose. But the group reformulated itself as Americans for Limited Government (ALG), pushing not just term limits but a variety of state-by-state ballot initiatives, created by petition drives, on a host of popular tax-cap and spending-cap issues. The beautiful thing about this idea is that it almost completely cuts all the political parties, and all their squabbling, out of the process. Regardless of the outcome of the November 7 elections, ALG helped put initiatives on the ballot in about a dozen states.

Congressmen aren't likely to stick their necks out too far if lavish spending on a district-by-district basis can help them get reelected.

This trans-partisan approach was important enough to inspire harsh condemnation from the highly popular leftist blogger Daily Kos, who saw in ALG's efforts a threat to democracy (though one would think that ALG's efforts are more directly democratic than most of what goes on in American politics). Kos's annoyance and alarm at ALG's efforts make his claims to be something of a "libertarian Democrat" (in a piece he wrote for Cato Unbound) seem suspect, likely just a strategic effort to get real libertarians to pull the lever for the wrong party.

Then again, I can't rule out the possibility that divided government— Republican/Democrat "gridlock"—would be a better formula for limiting government than putting one's hopes in a specific party. (This view has been put forward by Norm Ornstein, among others.) If nothing else, the Republican failure to achieve the easy multi-generational dominance of Karl Rove's dreams forces them to keep thinking and engage in self-criticism. If Republicans—indeed, all political factions—would spend more time repairing their own weaknesses and less time pleading in the alternative as the lesser of two evils, we would all be better off.

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