Before we can truly bring an end to unsustainable federal deficits and debt, we must first have a very frank national discussion about what government does. In the current political and economic environment, it is difficult to find anyone -- liberal, conservative, or whomever -- who doesn't insist that we must get the federal budget under control. When asked, almost everyone in Washington is singing the tune that spending needs to be reduced.
So… how do we know who is serious and who is just singing? We can start by looking past the numbers to press the more important questions: not of what government should spend, but what government should do -- and not do.
We are in the mess we are in today because Democrats and Republicans alike have, for decades, failed to grasp the simple and bedrock American concept of limited government. And you cannot limit government spending with an unlimited government.
Don't get me wrong. At this point, balancing the budget is our greatest imperative, and virtually anything -- spending caps, hiring freezes, across-the-board cuts, earmark bans -- that would move us in that direction in the near term is good. But absent fundamental, structural, and major surgery to eliminate activities government shouldn't be doing, we are simply putting the beast on a temporary diet-with an inevitable binge to follow.
Anyone who has ever worked in government knows that, if you simply cut an agency's budget without cutting what that agency does, the net effect is that spending is merely deferred until a brighter day. Positions aren't filled, purchases are postponed, and maintenance is put off until another year. The poor government employee who is trying to work on an outdated computer just has to wait a year or two to get it replaced-perpetuating inefficiency in an already inefficient environment. Unless we eliminate the need for that computer, it will eventually be replaced-and the money spent. The dollars are only pushed into another election cycle.
If you cut the budget for a federal power plant, the reconstruction of a generator gets "deferred." Either that expense is simply postponed, or, even worse, the old generator breaks and it costs far more to fix. That is not a reduction in spending-it's just bad business. Real spending cuts will only happen when we ask the question: Why does the government need to own a power plant in the first place? Turn it over to the private sector where it belongs, and then we are not just changing the numbers on the spreadsheet. We are doing away with the spreadsheet and its expenditure column entirely. And it is highly likely that we end up with better electricity generation.
The list goes on ad infinitum, but the point is clear: If your business or household is spending $1 for every 60 cents it brings in, to avert the immediate crisis, you may have to cut every line in your budget by 40 cents. But that won't solve the real problem. True prosperity only comes when you take a hard look at everything you do, identify that which you don't need to be doing, shouldn't be doing, or simply cannot afford to do… and stop.
Cut HUD's budget? Absolutely. Better yet, check the Constitution, confirm the absence of a Housing Article, and get the government out of the housing business altogether. Cut the Department of Education's budget? Yes, but realize that it may just do bad things more badly. Disband the Department of Education entirely, and then we are saving real money, not to mention removing federal obstruction of education innovation and improvement.
Truly controlling spending demands much more than juggling numbers on spreadsheets: it demands a long overdue return to the proper role of government. From that perspective, reducing the budget by 40 percent isn't all that difficult.
Gary Johnson is a Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency and a two-term Governor of New Mexico (1994-2002). During his time as governor he vetoed 750 bills and cut the rate of state government growth in half.
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