Can We?

September 6, 2010

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The story of America in the twentieth century was the story of the growth of government.  It has accelerated and decelerated, and even retreated at times, but taken together, it looks almost inexorable—it grows and grows, slowly choking out freedom and economic activity.  If we can’t figure out a way to stop it, it will eventually destroy the republic.

The government keeps growing no matter whom you ask or how you measure it; for example, consider the following:

  1. Adjusted for inflation, federal spending per household has nearly tripled in the last 45 years.
  2. Government spending now accounts for 40% of all economic activity in the country; it was half that, 20%, 60 years ago.
  3. Local, state, and federal government spending combined, adjusted for inflation, are nearly six times what they were 60 years ago (first chart at the bottom of this page; see also the second chart).
  4. In the last 40 years, federal spending grew about eight times as fast as median household income.

I know some conservatives have already given the country up as lost, but some of us are holding out hope.  All good things (in this world) must come to an end, and America cannot last forever; no nation can.  Nonetheless, in the battle of today, I think America may yet prevail, and so live to fight another day.

In fact, I wonder whether President Obama, surprisingly, will play a key role in that victory.  Let me explain.

It’s difficult to imagine how current trends and existing political pressures could ever produce sustained restraint in federal spending.  We have huge entitlement programs, like Social Security, that are already unsustainable, even by their own count.  A politician can’t very well advocate cutting spending on any of them, because the beneficiaries of such programs will definitely hold it against him in the next election, while the beneficiaries of the cut (i.e., all the rest of us, who may pay less in taxes because of it, and will definitely enjoy a more robust economy) may or may not reward his public service with commensurately more support.  At best, the benefit to us is more diffuse than the cost to the “entitled” persons; at worst, we won’t even realize that the benefits to us are connected to that particular legislative act, and won’t have any sense that there’s anything to reward.  Thus, the welfare state operates like a ratchet:  It can grow, but it can’t shrink.

I think one way this might be overcome is with a constitutional amendment; indeed, that’s arguably exactly what constitutional amendments are for, to overcome what would otherwise be a limitation of majoritarian democracy.  (E.g., we have the First Amendment protection for freedom of speech because otherwise politicians might be pressured to criminalize any opinion that a clear majority of the population strongly disliked.)  I have a friend who is skeptical that a constitutional amendment would do much good—he figures if the pressure is strong enough, politicians will figure out some way around it, some narrow interpretation that makes it ineffective as a restraint—but, again, I’m hopeful.  I don’t know what the best form would be for such an amendment to take; several possibilities come to mind:

  1. Limit total federal spending to a fixed percentage of GDP.
  2. Require a balanced budget.  Taxes are somewhat unpredictable (a tax sets the rate relative to something, or a set quantity per instance of a triggering event, but that doesn’t tell you how many dollars it will bring in that year); so I would tie it to hard numbers by limiting spending this year to the amount of total revenues last year.
  3. Take the vote away from anyone currently receiving government benefits (e.g., Social Security checks) or currently employed by the federal government.

It may be true that any such amendment, under normal circumstances, would be as politically impossible as restraining spending without an amendment.  But these aren’t normal circumstances.  President Obama, God bless him, has (at least in some ways) taken our country further down the road of statism, and faster, than we had ever gone before, and a lot of people don’t seem to like it.  As the “Tea Party” movement shows sustained popularity and Republicans enjoy unprecedented popularity (10-point advantage in generic ballot according to Gallup, higher than in any midterm election since 1942, when Gallup started keeping such numbers; 12 points according to Rasmussen, “the largest advantage ever measured for the Republicans”), I wonder at what point we have enough popular frustration to support the extraordinary step of amending the Constitution.

President Obama has been compared to FDR.  Liberals will say that the New Deal was good and should be emulated, while conservatives will say that the New Deal made the Depression worse and that any resemblance to FDR is one of Obama’s failings.  Regardless of what you think of the New Deal, another possible parallel occurs to me:  FDR is basically the reason we have the Twenty-second Amendment, right?  Perhaps BHO can become the reason we have the twenty-eighth.

In any case, we’d better find some way to reverse the growth of government.  Benjamin Franklin, asked what the Constitutional Convention had wrought, said, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”  It remains to be seen whether we can.

13 Responses to “Can We?”

  1. Sam Richardson Says:

    Suggestion # 3 is a sensible, and pragmatic, idea for a constitutional amendment.

  2. the right left hand view Says:

    I wonder what economic education you have undergone? You are constantly bashing government spending yet do you even under stand the complexity and difference between micro and macro economic theory? Surely someone who has been educated regarding macroeconomic theory may not come to the same irrational conclusions that you constantly do.

    Point #3 that you made is racist and ridiculous. So you want to take the vote away from anyone who is receiving unemploymet, SS retirement, SS disability or any aid. Goodluck. While we are at it, why don’t we take away the right to vote from gays since they are mainly democratic.

    Wake up. Open your eyes. If you don’t everything will pass you by.

  3. zupak Says:

    The right left hand view raises an interesting point about homosexuals. Chillingworth claims to cherish liberty, freedom, and limited government, yet at the same time supports government regulation of gay marriage. Hypocritical?

    • Leroy, you are such a goofball! You want to talk about homosexuality, no matter what I’m talking about.

      Distinguish liberty (negative liberty) from positive government benefits or recognition. I’ve already remarked publicly on this blog (to our friend “right left side view”, incidentally) that I am, on balance, against anti-sodomy laws. I think the state should leave homosexuals free to practice their homomsexuality. That’s the liberty you’re referring to. (No, I don’t think it’s hypocritical for other conservatives to be in favor of anti-sodomy laws, either, but in any case, I am not vulnerable to that charge.)

      The push for “gay marriage” goes beyond that liberty, that legal right to be left alone, and demands that the government positively grant special recognition or encouragement to homosexual unions. You might as well call me a hypocrite for being in favor of, say, the freedom to be a farmer, but not going so far as to say that the government should subsidize farming.

  4. zupak Says:

    The right to equal treatment is a negative liberty. I’m also confused by your reference to “special recognition” of homosexual unions. Homosexuals are merely asking for the same recognition the government already grants heterosexuals, nothing more. The fact that you would refer to this as “special treatment” simply does not make sense.

    • I don’t think equality itself is properly conceived of as positive or negative liberty; it’s equality, which is a good thing as far as it goes, but is not the same thing as liberty.

      The government doesn’t give “heterosexuals” anything; it gives married couples official (that is, governmental) recognition of their marriage. Until very recent times in the liberal (in both senses) West, as far as I’m aware, no culture in any time or place in human history has ever understood the definition of marriage to include couples made up of two men or two women. So you’re not asking for “the same” thing the government already grants to other couples; you’re doing almost the opposite, demanding that society change the definition of the thing (marriage).

      The foregoing doesn’t prove that it’s a bad change, but it is a change, and we are talking about positive government recognition of the union; so your original charge of hypocrisy doesn’t work.

      The next question would be whether or not we, as a society, should make such a change. The onus then is on you, the people in favor of the change, to explain why it would be a good idea. As part of that process, I think it is incumbent on you to think through the underlying question of why (if at all) the state should recognize marriage in the first place. You should then explain to us how your change to the definition of marriage would interact with those underlying reasons.

      As long as we’re talking, did you have any thoughts about what I was actually talking about in this blog post? How do you think we should deal with the welfare-state ratchet effect? As the government expands to take up more and more of the economy, how much do you think is too much? 50%? 75%? 100%?

      • zupak Says:

        Given the private sector’s utter failure to offer me employment of any kind, despite my academic excellence, I am in favor of 100% government takeover. Seriously.

  5. Ah, Leroy, now I know how you have the time to comment back so much more promptly than I can!

    Seriously, if you’re interested, talk to me off the blog, and I’m almost certain I can help you find some “employment of any kind”.

  6. […] Amendment was passed (1913), the federal government has grown out of control, whether you want a quantitative measure or a theoretical one:  The “commerce clause”—one of the few, enumerated powers of […]

  7. […] talked before (here and here) about the possibility of a constitutional amendment to address the structural problems […]

  8. […] media, you may not have known.  Conservatives have been concerned for decades about the inexorable growth of government over the course of the twentieth century.  Glenn Beck predicted this downgrade in February of 2008 […]

  9. […] I’ve discussed before, no matter how you measure it, government is big, and getting bigger all the time.  Comparatively speaking, Democrats are certainly the party of higher taxes, more spending, a […]

  10. […] to this year’s revenue, but to the average of the previous three years’ revenue (great idea!).  If a judge raises taxes in this year, it will do nothing to relax the limit on this […]

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