Freedom's next move

Posted: Jun 18, 2006 12:05 AM

The evidence is in: The Republican Party has completely failed to reduce federal spending. It hasn't even controlled growth. It has done the opposite. It has sent spending through the roof.

Further, its basic electoral strategy, the seemingly common-sense one of "starving government" by cutting taxes, though popular at the voting booth, has done nothing . . . this bares repeating . . . nothing to reduce the growth of government.

The evidence suggests just the opposite. By reducing taxes, Republicans have given politicians (now most of them Republican politicians) more incentive to spend.

It's an odd thesis. It goes against the grain of household economics. We like to say, "you can't spend what you don't have." Ronald Reagan put it best: "If you've got a kid that's extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker."

Trouble is, as liberal columnist Jonathan Chait put it, "The child has a credit card."

The conclusion seems obvious: The GOP has not only failed on its "less government" and "more freedom" agenda, it has put the conservative movement at an impasse.

It has even made Democrats and liberals look wise. Quite a feat.

Real Common Sense
This is the thesis that Jonathan Rauch has recently pushed in The Atlantic and on cable TV. Rauch is a smart cookie. His 1995 book Demosclerosis put him at the front ranks of journalists covering the Bloated Government Beat.

And parts of his thesis should seem awfully familiar to my readers. I've been harping on the failure of the GOP to control government spending for, well, it seems forever.

Further, Rauch mines some of the same sage aphorisms that I have. He puts William Niskanen, the public choice economist who heads the Cato Institute, very near the front of his story. It's on Niskanen's authority that Rauch rests much of his case.

Niskanen has explained, repeatedly, why, if you want to cut government, there's no substitute. You've just got to cut government. Cutting taxes means, as he puts it, making the perceived cost of government go down. So, like anyone faced with decreasing costs, citizens want more. Not the same. Certainly not less.

So we get more. More government. All because cutting taxes was put ahead of what's most important: controlling spending.

Surreal Sense
Of course, liberal readers of Rauch are probably like Mr. Chait, just champing at the bit to raise more taxes. And because Republicans have further bloated the debt, increasing the portion of the budget devoted merely to servicing interest, anti-tax forces will have a hard time keeping up their resolve. The ultimate result of Republican policy may be to increase taxes . . . without decreasing government.

After all, decreasing government is hard work. And it goes against the grain of so much politics. Politicians like to spend. Indeed, this is so much the case that the first step to cutting back on spending is the "mere" controlling of growth. Tax cuts, much as I like 'em, don't seem to slow government spending. Despite Republicans' seemingly valiant efforts, when Republicans took control of both houses of the legislature and the executive in 2000, nearly every brake on spending appeared to have been removed.

Niskanen's analysis notwithstanding, tax increases are not the answer. His simple supply-and-demand analysis is, though neat and tidy, not quite on the mark. Americans don't want more government because they're received a new tax cut. That looks at the economics of politics the wrong way.

Say Americans want to decrease government (as many, perhaps most, do), and their leaders assure them that cutting taxes is enough. They don't like taxes, after all, and taxes seem like a chief indicator of big government, so they let the issue slide.

It's really about the economy of attention. Americans don't have huge political attention spans. When politicians talk only about cutting taxes, they tend to satisfy "enough" of Americans' desires for less government.

In effect, Republicans have pulled a bait-and-switch. Want less government? Then vote for us, we'll give you less taxes! The logic doesn't quite follow, but it passes in politics because, well, politics isn't exactly conducive to clarity of thought.

But there is hope.

Common Sense Reform
In state after state, a new movement has begun to flourish. It is providing a new agenda for the conservative movement, to all who favor freedom and limited government. The movement is called Stop OverSpending.

It started out with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights in Colorado. The idea was to put a limit on what politicians could spend, and give citizens, not their representatives, the duty of putting aside the limit for special situations.

That way, politicians don't make every occasion a "special occasion," spending as if no limit existed. The basic idea is: put citizens in charge. And thus, politicians must actually account to the people.

It just happened in Colorado. The popular Taxpayers' Bill of Rights had been in effect for more than a decade when shocks to the Colorado economy, including a serious drought, put a crimp in state budgeting. Politicians wanted to spend more. But under TABOR, they had to ask the citizens. By a narrow margin, voters gave limited permission for government spending to increase. However, the victory belonged to the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights that gave citizens this new power over government.

Since the Colorado experience, citizens across America have rallied to put similar Stop OverSpending measures on the ballot in their states. These activists are helped by Americans for Limited Government, a national "action tank" supporting a variety of limited government initiatives and helping to train and organize citizens. The recent political season has seen a lot of action:

  • Maine — Citizens will see a measure on this November's ballot.
  • Michigan — Activists are wrapping up a petition drive to force a vote on their SOS measure this November. They expect to gather nearly 500,000 signatures.
  • Missouri — More than 200,000 Missourians signed petitions to put an SOS measure on the ballot. Now they are suing the Secretary of State, who, after moving the deadline up two days during the last month of the petition drive, has now refused to count the petitions.
  • Montana — Activists are turning in more than enough petitions on a Stop OverSpending initiative to meet next Friday's deadline.
  • Nevada — Citizens will turn in petitions this week on a measure they call Tax and Spending Control. They went to court, stopping a union-backed group from harassing petitioners and citizens wishing to sign.
  • Nebraska — Citizens must gather more than 115,000 signatures on petitions by July 7 to place the measure on the ballot. Petitioners are being told they cannot petition on public property outside government buildings.
  • Oregon — Oregon's Taxpayers Association is spearheading the effort to gather 140,000 signatures to qualify their Rainy Day Amendment. The measure stops overspending and requires surpluses to either be returned to taxpayers or placed in a rainy day fund.
  • Oklahoma — More than 300,000 Oklahomans signed petitions to put Stop OverSpending (SOS) on the ballot, but the measure must overcome a legal challenge by the public employee unions allied with powerful GOP-leaning donors.

The movement is in its infancy. But it provides hope that citizens can indeed control their government. It's a way for states to take the first step. It doesn't cut back government, but does put spending increases on a budget. A strict one.

Stop OverSpending ends the feast and famine — binge and raise taxes — budget cycle. The SOS initiatives don't allow politicians to spend us stupid in good times, when tax dollars roll in faster than expected. Surpluses not spent would be, instead, put in a rainy day fund. Or returned to taxpayers. Thus, SOS also helps end the wailing and moaning and threats of impending disaster each economic downturn when tax receipts slow a tad. It's just common sense that we save a little in the good times for assistance when times get tougher.

The Politics of Responsibility
Of course, this common sense had to come from the people. The only way to limit government growth is to take the responsibility of growing government out of politicians' hands. Politicians should be allowed to increase government spending only by a small amount, that amount a function of population growth and inflation. Beyond that, it should be up to citizens to decide.

That these ideas should come not from a political party but from the citizens themselves, and that the program should be enacted in the states before being mimicked in some way by the federal government, doesn't shock. Why look to government for the way to limit government?

It's time to take freedom seriously, time to act responsibly. It's time to stop overspending.

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