Government: How Big is Too Big?

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll

Thomas Jefferson is said to have quipped, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have." While history does not support the Jeffersonian attribution, it does support the conclusion—witness Soviet Russia, Communist China, and North Korea.

But how big is too big? At what point does the size of government become an obstacle to effective governance and the common good? 

Plainly, government needs to be large enough to protect the governed and their property, but not so large that it becomes a threat to those ends.

Of course when a country spends over $1 trillion each year more than it takes in, it is safe to say it has reached beyond what it can effectively govern. For four years running, the U.S. has done just that. While some will argue that the problem is not spending, but revenue—we just need to get the rich to pay their “fair share” and the not-quite rich to pay “a little more”—the devil is in the details.

Raise taxes?

Looking at the numbers, William Voegli, senior editor for the Claremont Review of Books, has figured that balancing the budget would require pinching the rich (those “one-percenters” making over $352,055 per year) for 90 percent of their income and the not-quite rich (those making between $150,400 and $352,055) for 70 percent of theirs.

However, if we insist on taxing the rich at those levels, we could soon find that there are no rich to tax, as the flight of actor Gerard Depardieu from France to Belgium and then Russia warns. If we choose to close the shortfall by raising taxes on the “un-rich”—that is, everyone else—it would create a real and focused grievance for the already struggling working class (the “99 percenters”) that the Occupy Wall Streeters sorely lacked.

Then there’s the problem of the declining taxpayer base. Whereas there were eight workers for every retiree in 1955, there are 2.9 today, and 2.1 projected for 2030. (Sadly, it is problem made worse by a culture of death that, in the last forty years, eliminated 50 million individuals from the tax rolls before they drew their first breath.)

The bottom line is that we can’t tax our way out of the deficit, much less the federal debt (currently, at $16 trillion and rising). That means getting our fiscal house in order will largely depend on reducing spending by trimming the girth of government. Continue reading here.

Originally published September 16, 2013.

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