All Commentary
Friday, December 1, 1995

In Praise of Train Wrecks

It Is Time to Ask Basic Questions About the Role of Government

Mr. Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).

While most Americans were going about their lives, denizens of the nation’s capital were scrambling to avert a “train wreck”—a deadlock over the budget that would force a government shutdown. In fact, members of the administration and Congress alike couldn’t seem to think of anything worse than closing the federal bureaucracy.

One of the reigning principles in Washington for the past half century has been that government must play a pervasive role in managing our complex society. Of course, there have been disagreements on marginal questions—should spending on a particular program rise two or ten percent?—which have regularly generated histrionics on Capitol Hill. But disputes about the basic role of the state have been rare. Despite mass public dissatisfaction in recent years, presidents and legislators of both parties have kept alive hundreds of federal zombies, agencies and programs that have long out-lived their purposes, assuming they ever did fulfill a legitimate need. Even some supposed conservative critics of Washington long accepted the status quo with barely a whimper of protest, choosing instead to help raise taxes to fund an endless soup-line for Washington’s well-heeled interests. In recent years proposals for old-style pork barrel programs have been advanced in the name of “investments,” like an expensive public employment program under the guise of “national service.”

The federal government currently consumes $1.6 trillion worth of national wealth, which is far too much. Yet every major proposed balanced budget plan will significantly increase that number. After decades worth of similar initiatives, it should be obvious that budget “reform”—small, incremental changes and slight cuts in growth rates of federal outlays—is no answer.

Rather, policymakers need to end programs, lots of them. And the only way to do that is to decide that some functions do not belong with the government. The best way to enforce serious cuts, in the face of continued resistance by important members of both parties, would be to welcome a “train wreck.” Defenders of the status quo would then face a choice: either accept the end of at least a few programs, or shut down the government, killing every federal agency.

Of course, members of the Washington establishment quail at the thought of defunding Uncle Sam. Whatever would helpless citizens do? Typical is the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which warns against “attempts to slash important government programs” that “threaten to diminish the scope of services the American public demands and expects.” AFGE President John Sturdivant cites the potential horrors: “The protection of the elderly and the environment, the disabled and downtrodden, the safety of our food, products, transportation and workers and countless other responsibilities of the federal government would be severely disrupted under proposals to eliminate jobs and programs.” His words echo along the Potomac.

There’s no doubt all of these goals are important. But why the near-universal assumption that such goals can only be accomplished by the federal government? Consider protection of the elderly. Uncle Sam does little to guarantee seniors’ physical safety—that is a responsibility of local police. Washington does provide Social Security and Medicare, but these programs are hurtling towards insolvency, threatening to drag the entire federal budget down with them. Moreover, they discourage individual saving for retirement and purchase of long-term health care insurance, creating mass dependency by the aged. Genuine “protection of the elderly” requires rethinking, not reaffirming, government’s role.

This failure to confront basic principles is also captured by the comments of columnist Mike Causey, who covers the federal government. He criticized one writer who asked who would notice a shutdown: “He is known to eat food (Agriculture Department) and drink water (Environmental Protection Agency), among other things. He also drives (Department of Transportation) and sometimes takes prescription drugs (Food and Drug Administration). If there were a government shutdown, he would be among the first to know—and to demand that those useless bureaucrats resume taking care of him.”

But all of these examples prove the opposite point. In none of these areas is the government “taking care” of people. Americans ate food before the Department of Agriculture; this agency simultaneously wastes taxpayer funds and drives up prices. Farmers paid to grow rice in the California desert, not average citizens, would be upset if the Department disappeared. Clean water has also been available for years without the EPA. Federal regulatory dictates in this area have been unduly cumbersome and expensive, exhibiting the usual flaws of national management of local problems. Private companies, localities, and states all constructed roads before the creation of the Department of Transportation in 1966. Why should taxpayers send money to Washington for Congress to parcel out, based on political clout, to fund local projects? And the FDA does not help provide drugs. Rather, it works overtime to prevent people, even those who are dying, from acquiring needed pharmaceuticals. In fact, thousands of people have suffered and died from delays caused by unnecessary federal rules when the very same safe substances were available in other industrialized nations.

None of this is to suggest that cutting spending won’t cause genuine hardship among employees dedicated to fulfilling their missions, however inappropriate. “I don’t feel as confident right now,” admitted a Labor Department employee who helps manage the Department’s Davis-Bacon program. “I’ve been in the government 24 years and never lost a day of pay, but this year seems to be different.”

And it should be. Again, it is time to ask basic questions about the role of government. The Davis-Bacon Act is Uncle Sam at his worst, mandating union-scale wages in construction projects receiving federal money. That not only costs taxpayers more; it also prevents lesser-skilled and often minority labor from competing for government-funded projects. In fact, as a new study from the Center for the Study of American Business relates, the law was originally passed earlier this century for the explicit purpose of barring blacks from competing with whites for work. Congress should eliminate the program and, yes, employees running the program should have to find work that doesn’t harm the public.

Instead of fearing a budget train wreck, people should welcome it. It is time to ask the sort of question rarely considered in Washington: do we wish to remain a free society? Uncle Sam is too expansive and expensive. Yet over the years would-be revolutionaries in the nation’s capital have found out how hard it is to kill even the smallest program, like federal tea-tasting. So shut down Washington. Then people will realize that they don’t need the Department of Agriculture for food, the EPA for water, the DOT for roads, and the FDA for pharmaceuticals. Then people will better understand the value of freedom.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.