Acton Commentary

Addition by Subtraction: Placing Limits on Government


Federal spending increased sharply in the 1970s. Graph appears in John Stossel's, Give Me a Break (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 131.

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office projected arecord high $422 billion federal deficit for 2004. This would be the secondstraight year of record-breaking deficits and, if projections hold true, itwould represent more than $1 trillion in total deficits over the three fiscalyears of 2003-2005. The wide gap between income and expenditures brings to thefore a disturbing trend in federal politics. While politicians have alwaysmade unrealistic promises to voters, now it appears that deficit spending hasbecome the surefire way to make good on them for every special interest group.

Then again, maybe the promises of politicians aren't sounrealistic. Author and book-hawker Matthew Lesko has made a career sellinghow-to guides for people looking to cash in on the $350 billion in federalgrants and loans available each year. The list of federally funded programs andactivities runs from the absurd to the mundane--from $100,000 to open a countryinn to $10,000 to read poetry. The list goes on an on. I find myself echoingLesko's question ,“Has the federal government gone completely insane?”

It is the tendency over time for the reach of government toincrease. This is why Thomas Jefferson observed, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield andgovernment to gain.”

In the case of representative democracy, there are importantcontributing factors which exacerbate this tendency. The Founding Fathersenvisioned a system of government in which the representatives served a term ofduty and then returned to their vocation or profession. In the interveningcenturies, however, politicking has become a profession.

As Hardball host Chris Matthews recently reminded us in an exchangewith Senator Zell Miller, Thomas Jefferson also once said that the first orderof the statesman is to get elected. To that end, it behooves an incumbent tobe as active as possible in order to have a positive record on which to run forreelection. To be “rehired,” a legislator must show that he or she has “donesomething” during their time in office.

I know this from firsthand experience. I spent time duringcollege as a legislative intern in state government for a politician who openlyattempted to make full use of the maximum number of bills that could be introducedper session. For a member of the minority party of the legislature, theintroduction of a bill becomes even more meaningful. It might be the onlytangible action that he or she is able to control, since bills are often leftlanguishing in committee.

“What have you done?” This is the natural and properquestion for any voter to ask a candidate for a political office. And so theimpetus is for the legislator who has an interest in being reelected to add newlaws to our already existing web of legislation. More and more of these billsand programs address narrower and narrower slices of life. This multiplicityof legislation leads the government ever to seek new areas of life in which toinsinuate itself.

And therein lies the difficulty. Where government movesbeyond the scope of its legitimate interests, it tyrannizes the properauthority of other spheres of existence. As Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper observed, within these other spheres “another authority rules, an authoritythat descends directly from God apart from the state. This authority the statedoes not confer but acknowledges.” These institutions of civil society possessan inherent dignity and sovereignty that should limit the extent and durationof legitimate government intervention.

At a recent Young America'sFoundation conference, news anchor John Stossel responded to a questionabout what one thing he would do to fix the system. His answer was that hewould require that, for every new law that was put into effect, two old lawswould have to be taken off the books. A solution elegant in its simplicity andrevolutionary in perspective, Stossel's answer exposes just how far legislatorsand bureaucrats are from recognizing the danger of excessive legislation.

For Stossel's solution to work, both candidates andconstituents would need to be convinced that reigning in the scope and size ofthe state is “doing something.” We should all understand that getting rid ofbad or superfluous laws is just as central to the role of legislator as makingnew ones. And for this to occur, voters will need to pressure lawmakers. AsLord Acton reminded us: “Everybody likes to get as much power as circumstancesallow, and nobody will vote for a self-denying ordinance.”