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Monday, April 1, 1996

Revolution at the Roots: Making Our Government Smaller, Better, and Closer to Home

Why Should Government Be Shrunk?

For the general reader, Revolution at the Roots provides a comprehensive survey of government-shrinking attempts around the nation. Prodigiously researched, it takes us to every corner of the land: welfare reform in Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Jersey; budget control in New York and Philadelphia; tax and spending limits in Arizona and Colorado; community policing in Houston; vouchers in Milwaukee. Prominently mentioned are the private, voluntary organizations which prove they can do a better job than government: the Marcus Garvey school for inner city youngsters in Los Angeles (where second-graders read college texts), the St. Martin de Porres shelter for women in Chicago, and dozens of others.

For partisans of liberty, however, this book is something of a disappointment. Eggers and O’Leary are staffers at the Reason Foundation, the libertarian think tank that publishes Reason magazine. Their problem is a familiar one for those on the Right: how to criticize government without offending the mainstream politicians and journalists who are so deeply committed to it. Not surprisingly, they pull their punches. The result is a book about shrinking government which fails to explain why government should be shrunk.

They mean their book to be a right-wing answer to David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s Reinventing Government. The premise of that book, eagerly embraced by the Clinton administration, is that government should not be viewed as a necessary evil: it is a worthy problem-solving machine that just needs an injection of efficiency and flexibility. While Eggers and O’Leary make some conservative points, they don’t take issue with this basic outlook. Their remedies closely resemble Osborne and Gaebler’s: introduce competition, cut down on red tape, and so on. As a result, they say, we will end up with “better” government. Kept under cover is the argument that government has a fatal flaw that cannot be reformed away.

After a few hundred pages, the reader starts to wonder whether Eggers and O’Leary are purposely omitting discussion of this fatal flaw, or just aren’t aware of it. Their principal reform idea is actually rather pro-government, the so-called “Tenth Amendment Revolt.” The aim is to reduce the federal government by getting state governments to take over many of its activities. For example, they are all for having government fund mental hospitals; they just don’t want the federal government to do it.

A libertarian would hardly concede a governmental role so easily. The fatal flaw looms too large in his thinking, namely that government action is based on the initiation of force, which is an inherently corrupt, and corrupting, way to approach public problems. For real libertarians, talking about better government is like speaking of better war: an oxymoron.

Ignoring libertarian roots also means that Eggers and O’Leary give away the moral high ground. Thinking people on all sides are now coming to realize that government does not have a promising future. Nobody expects—as the socialists of earlier generations expected—that government will bring us to utopia, or even to a harmonious, functional community. Now the debates are about limiting the damage. By accepting government as society’s problem-solver, Eggers and O’Leary join the fatigued pessimism of the modern mainstream. They concede that none of their reforms, even if fully implemented, will bring impressive results. The best we can hope for, they say, are “minor improvements.”

Is this all we have to offer future generations? Is this what we want on our tombstones, that we made minor improvements in a fundamentally sick system? What happened to the vision of a voluntary society? We have abundant proof that voluntary institutions do work. Think of the glorious future that beckons if we deliberately expanded these approaches. We can see, almost within reach, a society based on cooperating with our neighbors instead of forcing them.

Idealistic? Probably a little. But if libertarians don’t do the dreaming, who will?