When Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The course of history shows that as a government grows, liberty decreases,” he wasn’t merely talking about the politics of his day, but the politics of human behavior across generations and across continents. President Reagan no doubt had this principle in mind throughout his presidency. Reagan updated Jefferson with his suggestion that “as government expands, liberty contracts.”
We hear a lot of rhetoric today about ending the “politics of the past,” but there is no question more relevant or timely than the timeless question Jefferson and our other Founders asked: “What is the proper scope of government that will maximize freedom, prosperity, and security?” Our key policy debates revolve around this question, whether politicians admit it or not. The answer from our Founders, which was enshrined in our Constitution, is unmistakable: the best government is a limited government.
The past few decades in America have been a story of progressives who didn’t like that answer slowly unraveling the limitations on government through Congress and the courts. Consider where we are today. Since 1999, the total size of government, not adjusted for inflation, has doubled. Since 2001, non-defense discretionary spending (spending for things like health care, education, and the environment that have nothing to do with the military) has increased 50 percent when adjusted for inflation. Since 1994, Congress has approved more than 90,000 earmarks. And every year, Congress creates more and more regulations (i.e., the health care bill and the financial reform) that take away freedom in the name of security and progress.
Government today is so big it is almost impossible to measure how wasteful and incompetent it has become. The defense budget is such a mess it is impossible to audit. In almost every area of government there is a tremendous amount of duplication and waste and barely any metrics or measurements for success.
For instance, we have 70 different sets of bureaucracies in at least six agencies to help feed hungry people without any way to measure success. There are at least 105 different programs across nine agencies to encourage our young people to go into math, science, and engineering with no way to measure success. We have 78 job training programs outside the Department of Labor that also have no measurement for success. If these are legitimate federal roles and a good use of billions of taxpayer dollars, why not have one or two programs to perform each function instead of 100?
We also have a government that traps children in failing schools, entices low-income families into mortgages they can’t afford, offers access to government health care programs but not health care (Medicaid has a 40 percent denial rate), and takes away private property through eminent domain and other land grabs.
With the explosive growth in government this is an important moment in our history to revisit Jefferson and ask: Has all of this well-intentioned government made us more prosperous and free? Are we twice as prosperous when government doubles in size? Has the 50 percent increase in non-defense discretionary spending since 2001 given us 50 percent more opportunity? Obviously, the answer is no. In just the past two years, spending on discretionary programs has increased at 16.9 percent while wages have increased less than 2 percent. More troubling, we are on the edge of an economic abyss, with our $13 trillion debt threatening to bankrupt our country. The scope of our debt-which has hit 90 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP)-is already preventing the creation of 1 percent of GDP a year, which translates into 1 million fewer jobs.
The American people are figuring out that Jefferson isn’t so antiquated after all. More government gives us less freedom, less opportunity, and less hope for the future. With Congress’s approval rating at a well-earned 11 percent, I’m more confident than ever that “We the People” are poised to take back their government and their freedom.