Monday, April 5, 2010

Term Limits

Doc Zero has a new post over at Hot Air concerning the size of government. The thesis is familiar to all small L libertarians. Thomas Paine said it most succintly: That government governs best which governs least.

No one who knows me will be surprised to learn that I agree. The question is, is it possible to get there from here, and if so, how.

There are a number of people advocating term limits for the purpose of limiting the power of politicians. I agree that term limits, assuming you can actually get them to work to oust embedded politicians, will result in weaker politicians. But even effective term limits will not reduce the scope or power of the governments (local, state and federal) that we have today.

As the government exists today, the power is there to be exercised. If it cannot be exercised by a term limited politician, it will be exercised by someone or something else. Who or what would capture and exercise the power taken from a politician will vary. California now has term limits and the inheritors of political power seem to be unions. In Congress, I suspect that the largest winner will be the permanent staff of the standing committees (such as Ways & Means), with smaller pieces of the pie going to the various executive branch bureaucracies which would be subject to less effective Congressional oversight. Neither result is very attractive. The people staffing the committees and bureaucracies are unelected and not directly accountable to the people they seek to govern.

So, if term limits aren't the answer, what is? Smaller, less intrusive government. One that is not capable of annexing large chunks of the economy following an odd election in which one party is given firm control of both the executive and legislative branches. And here is where Doc Zero's post becomes most relevant. Each piece of the government, each committee, each bureaucracy, each commission, each board, has its own constituency. That constituency will fight to the death to keep its share of power.

To date, the history of government in this country since the Depression has been one of relatively steady growth. There have been few years in which the government's size or expenditures (other than defense) have actually been reduced. The reason is that, overall, each constituent group has successfully defended its commission/agency/board etc. Yes, from time to time there are some pieces of the government that go out of business. But not many, and not enough to change the overall direction of ever larger and more intrusive government.

Nothing has worked, so far. Reagan came closest, I think, when he tried starving the beast. He was essentially overruled by Congress. And even Reagan was unable to undo the newly created Department of Education.

I think that part of the answer is imposing a larger portion of the cost of government on more of the governed. Right now, the vast majority of the cost of government is borne by a few (less than 10%). Less than half of the people in the US pay ANY income tax at all. Why should any of the 90% care about how the money is spent (other than to get their share of it)? They don't share the burden. Increasing the size and scope of government can only be a win for them, in that there is no additional cost, but the possibility for new "free" stuff.

Will imposing the burden of government on more people fix the problem? Probably not. But I think it will help. Term limits won't.

No comments:

Post a Comment