Paul Jacob

In Texas, politicians have proven themselves no exception to the rule: give ’em a penny, they’ll take a dollar; give ’em a dollar, they’ll take your wallet.

But there is some novelty in the Lone Star State: A new way to control politicians is being tested.

Now, the issue at hand is over-spending. Which leads to over-taxing. Which leads to all sorts of problems.

Politicians like to spend. That’s how they make a name for themselves, that’s how they get special interests and groups of constituents to support them. That’s partly how they get re-elected. That’s how they feed their inner whining child.

It is quite true that taxpayers tend not to like paying taxes. But it is also true that if taxpayers could somehow be ignored, and only people who wanted money could be heard, politicians could grow government until it sucked the economic life out of taxpayers.

So some controls must be put in place. Politicians, unrestrained by a constitution, are no more trustworthy than, say, a pickpocket in a cloak room. The difference between criminals and Congress, as political philosopher Mark Twain noted, comes closer to a technical difference than a substantive one.

That’s why citizens have demanded constitutional limits to spending. Many states have tried various methods. These methods work for a while, some very well, some not. In Texas, a group calling itself Citizens Lowering Our Unfair Taxes has repeatedly cried foul, declaring that Texas politicians have repeatedly ignored the state’s constitution, and spent money over the set limits.

How could this happen?

Well, as Cato Institute scholar Michael J. New neatly summarized in a recent Cato podcast, for spending limits to work, they must possess three characteristics:

    1. The limits must be comprehensive, covering all spending and all revenue sources.
    2. The limits must be set low, so that politicians feel the bite; set it too high and politicians go on merrily spending.
    3. The limits must be self-enforcing.

That last part is where it gets tricky. Governments don’t like limiting themselves.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.