All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 2001

It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

How Much Government Do We Need?

“Year after year in Washington, budget debates seem to come down to an old, tired argument: on one side, those who want more government, regardless of the cost; on the other, those who want less government, regardless of the need.

“We should leave those arguments to the last century and chart a different course.”

President George W. Bush

For me, those were the most significant words in President Bush’s budget address to Congress in late February. I don’t know which is worse: his saying them to get along with the big-government folks in Washington or his actually believing them.

It probably doesn’t matter. It’s the result that counts. The government is big now, very big. Our freedom and independence as individuals have long been compromised. If the state merely stays at its present size, our lives will continue to be subject to intrusions that earlier generations of Americans would have found intolerable.

That quotation might lead one to think that the size of the government is just right. But that isn’t the case, because Mr. Bush proposes to increase spending. The budget will grow from $1.86 trillion to $1.96 trillion—more than a 5 percent increase. He proposes cuts in agricultural, business, and transportation subsidies—but only to enable him to increase education spending and other programs by substantially more than 5 percent. That’s called “holding the line on spending.” His tax cut will only slow the growth of government.

Mr. Bush’s catchy saying ducks the interesting problem. How does one mediate between cost and need? Those who oppose any cut in government can always cite needs that remain to be addressed: needs are infinite. Yet any increase entails costs: resources consumed by government would have been used elsewhere for valuable private purposes, not to mention that freedom is curtailed by the exercise of government power. Mr. Bush isn’t helpful. That’s what happens when rights are left out of the equation.

In his speech he went on to say, “Government has a role, and an important role. Yet too much government crowds out initiative and hard work, private charity and the private economy. Our new governing vision says government should be active, but limited, engaged, but not overbearing.”

Even on its own terms, this approach to government would require an ability for fine tuning hitherto unknown among politicians and bureaucrats. The lip service to limits is pathetic. Limited to what? Subsidizing religiously oriented social-work organizations? Imposing education standards and testing requirements on schools? This is a rather expansive view of limited government. In a sense, every government that ever existed was limited.

Moreover, the location of the fine line between “engaged” and “overbearing” will long be a matter of dispute. I wouldn’t expect the state’s administrators to err on the side of forbearance.

I guess the era of big government isn’t quite over.

* * *

Two hundred years ago this month Frédéric Bastiat was born in France. Since no historical champion of freedom is more identified with the Foundation for Economic Education, this issue of Ideas on Liberty is dedicated to him and his great work.

The issue opens with a broad outline of Bastiat’s life and writings, followed by a reprint of a portion of his best-known essay, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.”

Can we find practical applications of Bastiat’s principles today? Karen Selick looks for the “unseen” in government attempts to regulate business on behalf of the disabled.

Bastiat’s work can be summed up by the maxim that liberty produces harmony and social coordination. Norman Barry shows how this idea permeates the great liberal’s work.

While Bastiat was far more than an economist, he is best known for making economic principles and fallacies clear to the layman. Richard Ebeling pens an appreciation of Bastiat the economist.

Another area where Bastiat made his mark was what has come to be known as constitutional political economy. James Dorn examines this aspect of Bastiat’s work.

Are there two libertarian philosophies, one based on moral principles and one on a consideration of practical consequences? Many people are under that impression. Jim Peron explores the prospects of a reconciliation.

To read the news media, you’d think California is undergoing a power crisis because the free market in energy failed. Jerry Taylor advises against jumping to that conclusion.

Our columnists this month chew over some fascinating subjects: Donald Boudreaux wonders about wonders. Lawrence Reed hopes the new treasury secretary follows in the steps of his predecessor. Doug Bandow scrutinizes the U.S. bombing of Iraq. Dwight Lee continues his discussion of efficient pollution. Mark Skousen takes note of the fall of Keynes. Russell Roberts recaps the marvels of the unseen. And Thomas DiLorenzo, hearing the charge that prosperity can be bad, cries out, “It Just Ain’t So!”

This issue’s reviewers peruse books on foreign intervention, globalization, usurpations of liberty, the burden of government spending, the suburbs, and the alleged evils of capitalism.

—Sheldon Richman

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.