Can big government be stopped?
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation. Below is an excerpt from his new book, Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?
Big government is an unstoppable force. That’s the most common objection faced when one talks about cutting spending or rolling back regulations. Sometimes even conservatives make this argument.
Consider a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Peter Berkowitz that announced in the subtitle, “Big government and the social revolution are here to stay.” Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and author of Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation. Apparently where constitutional conservatism and political moderation conflict, moderation should win. “Conservatives can and should focus on restraining spending, reducing regulation, reforming the tax code, and generally reining in our sprawling federal government,” Berkowitz advised. “But conservatives should retire misleading talk of small government. Instead, they should think and speak in terms of limited government.”
“It is important for Republicans to recognize that the battle is over,” wrote Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post. The estimable conservative columnist concluded, “Years ago, Republicans suicidally carried on against the New Deal long after it had been accepted by most citizens as part of the fabric of American political life.”
Some conservatives even welcome the changes government growth has wrought. Blogging at U.S. News & World Report, Scott Galupo worried that the constitutional challenges to Obamacare would blossom into a full-blown challenge to postwar big government. “But a well-educated faction of conservatives see it as a vessel for larger ambitions: It’s a chance for the court to restore the proper constitutional understanding of untrammeled economic liberty,” Galupo fretted. “To put it mildly, such ambitions scare the crap out of me.”
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We have arrived at a point where preserving government at a size that will necessitate perennial trillion-dollar deficits, staggering tax increases, rampant inflation, or some combination of the three, is less scary to many Americans than restoring constitutional boundaries.
There are objections to the case for conservative acquiescence to big government. Berkowitz’s vision of limited government is impossible without large cuts to the welfare state—or at least gradual reforms that will result in less spending over time. If we’re talking about government limited by the Constitution, there is no way to square a three-trillion-dollar federal budget with Washington’s real enumerated powers. Similarly, Berkowitz’s policy objectives of “restraining spending, reducing regulation, reforming the tax code, and generally reining in our sprawling federal government” are all unattainable so long as government continues to assume so many powers and functions.
Krauthammer’s column mentioned the conservative campaign against big government only in passing. It was actually written in 1992 about the alleged end of the “abortion wars.” Krauthammer began by asserting, “The abortion debate is over.” Pro-lifers, he concluded, had lost. “One can reasonably declare a great national debate over when all three independently elected branches of government come to the same position,” Krauthammer argued. The Supreme Court, then without “a single Democratic appointment in 25 years,” had just reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. Bill Clinton, a “down-the-line pro-choice president” who “pledged to appoint abortion-rights judges,” had just been elected, alongside pro-choice Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
Yet twenty years after Krauthammer wrote these words, abortion remained a hotly debated topic. The number of abortions, the abortion rate, and popular support for the pro-choice position all subsequently fell. A Gallup poll in May 2012 found that the percentage of Americans identifying as “pro-choice” was at an all-time low. Self-described pro-lifers outnumbered pro-choicers by 50 percent to 41 percent. Three years earlier, Gallup even found a slim pro-life national majority.
That’s not to say that the abortion debate was completely transformed. Abortion is still restricted only at the margins. Pro-choice candidates, while failing to enact sweeping measures like a federal law guaranteeing the right to abortion, still win some important elections. Roe remains substantially intact after forty years. But the debate over abortion is clearly not over, and opponents have made progress that the conventional wisdom—plus the three branches of the federal government—once considered impossible. Even opinion leaders do not always know where public opinion or political conditions will go. This is especially true when a dedicated group of activists continues to fight, undaunted by long odds and willing to speak the truth.
Nevertheless, there are good reasons to argue that big government is what Russell Kirk might call a “permanent thing.” Cutting government is extremely difficult and rarely accomplished. In a perversion of Say’s Law (“supply creates its own demand”), the sup- ply of government creates its own demand. In an essay in National Review in 2005 on the “smallness and weakness of the constituency for limited government,” Ramesh Ponnuru wrote, “There are more voters who care deeply about keeping the Small Business Administration in operation than there are voters who care deeply about shutting it down.”5 The breakneck growth of a deficit-financed welfare state makes it inevitable that more voters will develop similar attachments to proliferating government programs, though the broad-based tax increases that they entail will dampen the enthusiasm of some.
The economist Robert Higgs described the “ratchet effect” in his landmark book Crisis and the Leviathan. A war or some other crisis causes government to grow, leading to the assertion of new powers or the creation of additional bureaucracies. When the crisis passes, the tide of state power recedes but not to its pre-crisis levels. Thus with each emergency, the size and scope of government grows a bit more, and much of that growth is permanent. The financial crisis of 2008 is a textbook example of this phenomenon. Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, encouraged his fellow liberals to “never let a crisis go to waste.”
The historical record is discouraging. According to the Office of Management and Budget, year-over-year government expenditures, adjusted for inflation, have fallen only four times since 1980: 1987, 1993, 2007, and 2010. And on closer examination, it’s even worse— spending barely changed in 2007, and the federal government failed to pass a budget in 2010.
“So why exactly would anyone expect Congress to really cut spending down the road if it has shown essentially no ability to rein in spending in the near term?” asks Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason magazine. “This is like a variation on the old joke about losing money on every unit sold but making it up in volume. Except it’s not like that at all. Or funny.”
Three times America stood on the precipice of social democracy. Three times, largely Republican congresses yanked America back from the brink. And three times the GOP seriously sought to cut spending—twice with a hostile White House. Nevertheless, the results were mixed. What might future government-cutters learn from this political history?
“The 1981–82 Congress contented itself with trimming, limiting, and containing existing programs,” observed David Frum. He noted that only two large federal programs—revenue sharing and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act—were actually abolished. The latter was replaced by a new training program co- sponsored by the future vice president Dan Quayle. “The 1947–48 Congress, though it left much of the New Deal alone, struck decisively when it moved at all,” Frum continued. “Price controls were not lifted gradually; they were abolished outright. The closed shop was not tampered with; it was prohibited.”
The 1995–96 Congress more closely resembled the 1981–82 edition than the “do-nothing Congress.” As a result, many of its achievements were gradually reversed. Farm subsidies were restored; domestic discretionary spending was increased; the surpluses turned back into deficits; and eventually, under Obama, the work requirements for welfare were weakened.
The same fate befell the reforms of the Reagan Congress. Inflation-adjusted non-defense discretionary spending fell 9.7 percent in Reagan’s first term and rose 0.2 percent in his second. During the 1990s, domestic spending increased while the defense budget declined with the end of the Cold War.
The Reagan tax cuts proved more durable. But even here there was backsliding. The capital gains tax was raised to 28 percent as part of the 1986 tax reform deal. The business tax cut was nullified. Payroll taxes began rising, eating away at the Reagan tax cuts for the middle class. The top marginal income tax rate jumped in 1990 and in 1993, never returning to its pre-Clinton levels after the Bush tax cuts. Obama is threatening to raise them again.
Frum cites federal housing programs to illustrate the erosion of reform:
The U.S. spent about $5 billion in housing programs in 1983. The government spent less in 1984 than it had in 1983, less in 1985 than 1984, less in 1986 than in 1985, less in 1987 than in 1986. Then, suddenly, all the gains evaporated: Between 1987 and 1988, housing spending nearly sextupled, to $14 billion. By 1990, the federal government was spending more than $25 billion on housing programs.
Government programs are like weeds. If they are merely trimmed, they will grow back. They must be uprooted when possible.
But another lesson is that big government can be curtailed, even when it is not reversed. Not achieving all of your policy objectives doesn’t mean you haven’t accomplished anything important.
Success must also be measured by something more ambitious than prevailing at the ballot box. Of the three reforming Congresses we’ve looked at, the one that was least successful at getting itself reelected scored the most enduring victories against big government. Republicans controlled the Senate for six years under Reagan and the House for twelve years after Gingrich led them to victory in 1994. But they put a smaller dent in big government than the “do- nothing” Republicans of 1947–48, who lost their majority in 1948. By the time the Democrats retook the House in 2006, the congressional GOP was their partner in big government.
It would be foolish to claim that stopping big government is easy. Many people clearly benefit from government. Others perceive benefits where they may not exist. Most of all, asking politicians to think of something more important than fundraising or reelection cuts against human nature.
But big government has been challenged before, with some success. With some courage—and more than a little luck—it can happen again. Learning from the recent past is a great place to start.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?