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Monday, February 21, 2011

THE LIBERTARIAN IMPULSE AND THE PROPER ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

The current national debate about the federal budget/deficit/debt is getting more and more strident. It is time for interest groups and politicians alike to take a deep breath and start thinking about the broader but significant question of "the proper role of govt."  It is clear from the early debates about where to cut govt. spending that politicians in Congress are still largely the captives of special interests who have a sense of entitlement to federal revenues (taxes). These are not the "entitlements" described as the 60% of each federal budget that do not require annual authorization i.e. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. These are the products of decades of govt. expansion to facilitate the liberal concept that govt. should solve all individual and group demands for economic and material comfort, and ideologically based agendas. It is the simple answer to why govt. spends trillions more than it takes in each year.

Critics on the Left cite the huge cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and "tax cuts for the rich" as well as the never fully described "corporate welfare". Certainly the wars have been hugely expensive and any tax cut reduces government revenues. But the problem of the growth of government in both its scope and size is clearly the long term problem. The federal budget is both unfathomable and opaque. It is filled with grants, programs and bureaucracies that most people have never heard of. Regulatory bodies which offer no direct expenditure of funds still require huge administrative budgets and many serve narrow interests.

The web site "U.S. FinancialSource.com" advertises, "Over $8 Billion in grant money being given away monthly. Apply today." Another web site "FreeGrantsMoney.us" offers "Billions in grant money being given away monthly. Apply today." The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance programs is breathtaking in its volume and scope. Within this catalog the Historical Profile of Catalog Programs goes to 133 pages in list form of federal government grants and loans. While most of these grants and loans, which are administered by regular cabinet departments of the government are ostensibly beneficial to states, communities and groups, their very existence speaks to the question of the proper role and scope of the federal government and its use of taxpayer funds in trying to serve all conceivable needs especially in times of economic crisis.

Duplication and redundancy seems common place. There are 17 grant programs for "promotion of the arts". Five seemingly identical grants are for "physical fitness". The apparent lack of congressional oversight into what can only be bureaucratic excess in the development of these grants and programs is the most troubling aspect in the context of budget review. The Department of Wildlife offered a 2010 budget item of $2.4 million for the "Great Ape Conservation Fund" as well as a $2.9 million dollar program for the "Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund". The recipients are "any African government responsible for conservation in these areas.” The Department of Transportation offers a grant to states for the "construction, renovation and maintenance of tie-up facilities for transient recreational boats 26 ft. or greater." It gets worse. The State Department has a grant program called the U.S. Ambassador Fund for Cultural Preservation in foreign countries. In Fiscal 2010 sixty-three projects with costs to U.S. taxpayers ranging from $10,000 to $850,000 were funded. Projects included were church wall paintings in Lebanon; "documentation of Cameroon's Baka dances”; "restoration of an 18th century gate in Hanoi, Vietnam” and "documentation of tribal pygmy music in the Democratic Republic of the Congo." Here in the U.S. federal programs range from "national fertilizer development grants" to "Foster Grandparent" programs.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has embarked on a mission to make significant cuts in the fiscal 2011 federal budget proposed by the President. This is billed as both a first step in a larger effort to make dramatic cuts in federal spending and a change in the mentality or culture of Congress which in the past has appropriated funds based on ideological considerations and interest group lobbying and without consideration of fiscal responsibility.

Both parties and the President are acknowledging the importance of reducing spending and the federal debt but Obama and the Democrats in Congress are reluctant to make the hard choices necessary to rein in the costs of social programs and thus anger their liberal base. They prefer to focus on military spending and the long term strategy of "growing out of deficits/debt by stimulating economic growth and thus federal tax revenues through more spending. As always in discussions about enhancing revenue, they fall back on the "smoke and mirrors" fallacy of assigning millions of dollars of "savings" by "eliminating waste and inefficiency."

Republicans on the other hand, especially the numerous freshman elected in November, 2010, believe they have the support of the electorate to make the large but painful cuts necessary to start the budget reduction process. Unfortunately, they are faced with the common problem of voters who only see programs from which they don't personally benefit as appropriate targets for cuts. Voters who benefit from particular programs or tax codes are susceptible to demagoguery by opponents of any cuts. Thus the inevitable charges of “hurting the poor”; “harming children, women, and minorities”, “the environment”, and “killing jobs”, offered by liberals distort the reality that all programs help someone and thus can be classified as desirable. But the fiscal situation is in crisis and if left unaddressed could reach levels for which no solutions will be adequate. What the Congress and President are faced with is the need to prioritize spending and in effect engage in a process of economic “triage” which identifies the most critical areas of spending and pursues the cuts in the less critical areas even if they are “desirable”.

The view that government is vastly overextended has stimulated increased prominence for libertarian views. The most prominent voices for these views are Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) and his son Senator Rand Paul (R-KT). Ron Paul ran as the Libertarian Party candidate in the 1988 presidential election and again as a Republican contender in the 2008 election. In 1988 he attracted more attention than support however, achieving only .5 % of the popular vote. In the 2008 Republican campaign he achieved 10% of the delegate count. He is currently considering running in 2012 for the Senate from his home state of Texas or engaging in another presidential run. He would serve the political process better in the future with a run for the Senate. Another run for the Presidency would make him the conservative version of quadrennial presidential candidate from the liberal fringe, House member Dennis Kucinich whom no one takes seriously.

However, the current political atmosphere seems much more amenable to his views which include a drastically reduced role for government. While it is clear that much of Paul’s plan is both politically and practically impossible, the economic crisis makes the broader concepts of his libertarian philosophy more attractive and may indeed represent a new (in Congress) philosophical core of ideas and help bring about progress in dealing with the entitlement mentality that has governed federal spending for so long.

As a committed and fairly doctrinaire follower of the libertarian political philosophy, Paul and his supporters envision a minimalist government at all levels which in their view, maximizes individual liberty while increasing individual responsibility for one's own welfare. Thus Paul opposes most federal government programs like federal flood insurance, agricultural subsidies, any national identification card for any purpose, and surveillance of “peaceful” civilian groups for national security purposes (Patriot Act). He is vigorously “pro-life” in the abortion debate which at first seems like a contradictory position in support of government intervention into personal “choice” but as a practicing obstetrics physician he holds the belief that life “starts at conception”. In terms of foreign policy he would withdraw from the United Nations and NATO. He does not believe in foreign military intervention and was one of only two Republicans who voted against the Iraq War Resolution.

However, it is in the area of fiscal and monetary policy that his libertarian views are likely to have the most influence in the current Congress. Paul has consistently voted against all proposals for “new” government spending and taxes. Indeed, he would abolish the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Reserve and eliminate most federal government agencies. He opposes "Obamacare" and “the War on Drugs”. While much of this agenda is far out of the mainstream of even the Republican Party in Congress, some of these ideas have been discussed and more importantly, they provide additional impetus for greatly reduced federal spending.

Paul’s political action committee, Liberty PAC raised millions of dollars for support of the Tea Party in its early days and he claims Liberty PAC support helped elect 25 conservative candidates win in various state legislative elections. It is this connection with the new contingent of Tea Party members of the House that provides the “libertarian impetus” in the 112th Congress which now includes Paul’s son, Senator Rand Paul.

Early Saturday morning on Feb. 18th, the House passed a budget for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year which expires in Oct. which cut 61 billion dollars from 2010 levels. While it must be kept in mind that the Republican majority which passed this budget without a single Democrat vote knew from the start that it has no chance of surviving passage in the Democrat controlled Senate in its current form and thus was significantly easier to vote for since the major cuts to domestic programs will not actually impact voters. However, it does establish a negotiating position with the Senate and will undoubtedly result in significant cuts in some areas. It also puts a “finger in the wind” to test public support for future significant cuts in spending.

While the House Republicans didn't focus specifically on pigmy music or welfare for apes, they did make broad based cuts to most government departments including Defense. They also eliminated funding for Democrat favorites, Planned Parenthood which is the nations largest abortion provider, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) which receives a $430 million annual federal subsidy. While these organizations serve large constituencies they could hardly be described as "vital" and thus are rightfully susceptible to responsible "triage". Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of course objects:

“Democrats believe we should make smart cuts — cuts that target waste and excess, not slash the programs that keep us safe and keep the economy growing.”

In Colorado, National Public Radio (NPR) which is part of the CPB, spends $1million a year on children's and educational programs including "Super School News" which teaches kids how to put together a broadcast story. The kids must be having fun but may not be "keeping us safe and the economy growing".

Ron Paul and the Tea Party Caucus in the House must be pleased. They have made their statement, lived up to their election year commitment and have demonstrated the efficacy of the libertarian impulse in the new Congress. The important questions remaining are: will this impulse survive for the next two years in the face of Democrat intransigence in the Senate and the White House, and if so, will it still command majority public support in 2012?

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