How to Reduce Government Bloat

Like many people, I have been pondering our governmental gridlock. The current Washington ethos reminds me of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when many wondered whether government was possible any more. Ronald Reagan soon proved such pessimism wrong, but at the same time his sound bite philosophy that “government is the problem, not the solution,” helped create our current dilemma.

Reagan fans will bridle at hearing his philosophy described so cynically, but truthfully nobody, and certainly not Ronald Reagan, believed that government is always the problem. Unless you are the most extreme of libertarians you count on government to fight wars, build roads and bridges, and provide courts and police. In some large and very important areas, government is the solution, and probably the only solution. (Living in Africa, where governments are often incompetent and corrupt in a way that makes Washington seem almost dreamlike, made me much more appreciative of the value of a functional government.)

However, Reagan used that sound bite to express a venerable conservative position, which is that government is often bloated and inefficient, and that we frequently do better to rely on private initiatives. That’s an important point, worth repeating forcefully.

Most people, liberal or conservative, believe some version of what Reagan was saying. Even  Communists nowadays know that governments should stay out of lots of things. The argument is over balance—which responsibilities should government take on—and efficiency—how do we go about correcting bloated government.

I don’t have any particularly original contributions to make regarding those arguments. But I do have something to say as a citizen of California. Yes, I know it’s arrogant to believe, as Californians tend to, that we are ahead of the curve and that the rest of the nation follows our lead. But hear me out.

Since Reagan opined that “government is the problem,” and particularly since Newt Gingrich led a generation of Republicans to fight it out with Bill Clinton, Republicans have thought they could reduce bloated government by “starving the beast.” They have continued to vilify government, as Reagan did, and almost the only legislation they have championed year in and year out is tax cuts. The reasoning, at least for some, is that tax cuts are easy to pass and tax increases difficult. If taxes were cut to a point where alarming deficits were inevitable, then the government would be forced to reduce in size. By analogy with dieting, they were saying that if you don’t have any food in the house, you will have to lose weight.

Does the strategy work? Well, it certainly didn’t work during the Bush years. The federal government grew at an unprecedented rate, even while deficits skyrocketed.

But lots of Republicans consider that an anomaly, brought on by George Bush’s lack of genuine conservatism. If the party were pure and deficits were high, they think, they could really cut government down to size.

I don’t think so. For good or evil, the American public is genuinely and deeply favorable to the governmental programs that eat up most of our cash—that is, Medicare, Social Security, the military, and infrastructure. The rest of the federal budget is almost chump change, comparatively. These programs will not disappear, no matter how much some conservatives dream of doing away with them. What they desperately need is intelligent reform. Government programs tend to be wasteful. For the most part we don’t need to eliminate them. (We won’t, for the most part.) We need to get rid of the bloat.

What then does California teach us? Due to our peculiar state constitution, a minority of one third of the legislature can stop any significant legislation. And that is exactly what California Republicans have done for the last twenty years. Ideologically pure in their conservatism, they have not been able to win a legislative majority—or even come close—for a very long time. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because their major objective is saying no to tax increases. Holding almost two thirds of the seats in the California Senate and Assembly, Democrats have not been able to pass a budget because Republicans have been fiercely disciplined in saying no. They have, like Republicans in the U.S. Senate, a minority veto. And they have been wielding it for much longer than the folks in Washington have.

They can stop the Democrats from doing what they want to do. Sometimes, maybe often, that’s a very good thing. But does it shrink government? Apparently not. What it does is frustrate government, so that no bargains can be reached. Nobody is in charge. Nobody takes responsibility. Programs once started go on forever, for what political gain can there be, for anyone, in ending them or reforming them? The Democrats are as feckless as the Republicans—they aren’t going to give up any goodies. Government bureaucracy has become more bloated, not less—and I mean bloated in the sense of irresponsible, inefficient, and sometimes downright crazy in its perverse operations.

It’s a warning against the national Republican strategy. If you want the federal government to follow in California’s path, just say no. You can stop government from ever making a decision on anything hard, and fan the flames of governmental distrust. People will get even more angry and frustrated with the government, and they may even vote for you. But you won’t shrink government that way, because you won’t accelerate rational judgments about where and how government should be involved. You’ll just stop every chance of change. And bloat will increase, no matter who is in power, because those in office won’t have any real power except to hand out treats to the public. Government-as-Santa-Claus is always popular. You can enact tax cuts or huge unfunded programs. (Medicare drug benefits, or wars in Iraq come to mind.) But the hard choices involved in cutting government bloat require a large degree of bipartisan cover. (In one rare instance, welfare reform was enacted.)

Bipartisanship puts the nation above the party. It’s thus patriotic. But it’s also the only chance we have to achieve the fundamentally conservative goal of reducing governmental bloat.


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One Response to “How to Reduce Government Bloat”

  1. Silas Says:

    been reading Paul Krugman?

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