Matt Patterson

"Laws were most numerous when the state was most corrupt." — Tacitus, The Annals III.27

Texas Gov. Rick Perry came in for much ridicule for his televised failure to remember which three federal agencies he has pledged to eliminate if elected president. More embarrassing for Mr. Perry, however, is the fact that he thinks any federal agency could be eliminated (much less three) — and that he says so with a straight face.

Such a thing is beyond the realm of possibility, and to believe otherwise is to labor under hopeless delusion. Even President Ronald Reagan, bursting with enormous personal popularity and propelled by gale-force political winds after two landslide electoral victories, was unable to cut government spending during his two terms, let alone cut an entire federal agency. In his autobiography, "An American Life," Reagan admitted that his failure to cut federal spending was one of the "biggest disappointments" of his presidency.

Reagan's efforts to slow government's inexorable growth, combined with his tax and regulatory reforms, produced an astonishing economic boom: Over the course of his eight years as president, 20 million jobs were created and unemployment fell from 7.6 to 5.5 percent. Still, if Ronald Reagan, one of the most powerful and popular presidents in U.S. history, couldn't eliminate a single cabinet department, does anyone really think Rick Perry — or any contemporary politician — could?

If we lived in a constitutional republic — that is to say, one of limited and clearly defined powers — perhaps eliminating whole swaths of government would be possible. Maybe that's Mr. Perry and Republican primary voters' problem: They believe, beyond all evidence, that we live in such a nation. But we don't, and haven't for a long time.

America was born such a creature, or at least that was the Founding Fathers' hope for the government they brought into this world. But as the nation grew, it matured into something quite different. Especially over the past century, Americans collectively and repeatedly voted for politicians and supported policies that transmogrified the Old Republic into what could best be described as an imperial bureaucracy. Ever since the New Deal, we have effectively been living in post-republic America.

Matt Patterson

Matt Patterson is senior editor at the Capital Research Center and contributor to Proud to be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation (HarperCollins, 2010). His email is