All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Downsizing the Federal Government

Cato Institute • 2005 • 250 pages • $20.00 hardcover; $12.00 paperback

Leonard Read once said that if there were a button that would instantly eliminate all government intervention, he would push it. But since no such button exists, and the federal government is so overwhelmingly large, one who really wants to go about reducing government might reasonably ask: where to begin? A book by Cato Institute scholar Chris Edwards, Downsizing the Federal Government, offers some ideas on that question.

Downsizing the Federal Government details the many ways in which the federal government takes our money and spends it on things that are often not merely wasteful, but also harmful. As a solution, it recommends widespread cuts and elimination of major programs. For example, it proposes an end to farm subsidies, corporate welfare, federal housing, and subsidized loans, among many other programs. It calls for complete privatization and revocation of privileges for government-run “businesses,” such as the United States Postal Service, Amtrak, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The book also calls for steps to prevent new programs from arising and becoming entrenched. For example, Edwards advocates inclusion of a “sunset” provision in all programs and regulations, which would terminate them after a fixed period. He argues, rightly, that advocates of intervention should bear the burden to show why their proposed programs are necessary; the presumption always should be in favor of more liberty and less government.

Though it is refreshing to see a book published in Washington, D.C., that considers ways to reduce rather than expand the federal government, Downsizing the Federal Government is not perfect.

The book too often implicitly or explicitly accepts interventionist premises. For example, it concedes that government might be competent or desirable to perform certain functions, such as provide so-called “public goods.” While a smaller government such as the one Edwards endorses would indeed be far preferable to the present federal behemoth, a government of any size or scope is nothing more than organized violence and, Ludwig von Mises noted, “the negation of liberty.” Downsizing the Federal Government would have done well to acknowledge this.

More disturbing is the book’s endorsement of Social Security and Medicare “personal accounts,” such as those proposed by President Bush and other politicians. These schemes would not increase freedom because they would still forcibly take money from individuals and use it in ways government planners consider best. To genuinely increase liberty in these areas, we need more radical changes that would allow people to keep their own money and use it for any purpose.

One must also wonder who the audience is for this book. Through no fault of the author, detailed descriptions of federal programs and budget numbers are not exactly captivating reading for those of us not fully immersed in the world of public policy. And such facts and figures—again, through no fault of the author—become outdated quickly, as programs proliferate and budgets burgeon. Government will always need to be reduced, of course, but the specifics to which this book devotes so many pages will change—probably some already have. So the book seems to have a limited period of direct usefulness.

Of course, one would like to imagine that our lawmakers will read the book, have a road-to-Damascus experience, and begin making Edwards’s proposed cuts immediately. But that will not happen. As Public Choice economists and common sense tell us, politicians are personally motivated to serve interest groups and get reelected. Despite their righteous rhetoric, most are not sincerely interested in what is best for everyone or in reducing the state power they’ve worked so hard to seize. Instead, politicians are essentially plunderers who steal from the productive and give to the politically favored. This book therefore will not help educate politicians—they know very well what they’re doing, and that’s why they’re in Washington in the first place.

Still, Downsizing the Federal Government is largely an admirable book and—at least by Washington standards—a radical one. And it is always possible that some idea within it will find its way to some politician who can use it to his advantage while marginally increasing our liberty. Murray Rothbard, perhaps the most radical libertarian of all, wrote that the supporter of liberty “must take any and every opportunity to chop away at the State, whether it’s to reduce or abolish a tax, a budget appropriation, or a regulatory power.” Downsizing the Federal Government shows numerous ways in which those in power could begin to reduce and abolish right now—if they wanted to.