Addition by Subtraction: Placing Limits on Government

Two week ago, the Congressional Budget Office projected a record high $422 billion federal deficit for 2004. This would be the second straight year of record-breaking deficits and, if projections hold true, it would represent more than $1 trillion in total deficits over the three fiscal years of 2003-2005.

The Natural Progress of Things

The wide gap between income and expenditures brings to the fore a disturbing trend in federal politics. While politicians have always made unrealistic promises to voters, now it appears that deficit spending has become the surefire way to make good on them for every special interest group.

Then again, maybe the promises of politicians aren’t so unrealistic. Author and book-hawker Matthew Lesko has made a career selling how-to guides for people looking to cash in on the $350 billion in federal grants and loans available each year. The list of federally-funded programs and activities runs from the absurd to the mundane — from $100,000 to open a country inn to $10,000 to read poetry. The list goes on an on. I find myself echoing Lesko’s question, “Has the federal government gone completely insane?”

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

Don’t Do Something, Just Sit There!

In the case of representative democracy, there are important contributing factors which exacerbate this tendency. The Founding Fathers envisioned a system of government in which the representatives served a term of duty and then returned to their vocation or profession. In the intervening centuries, however, politicking has become a profession.

As Hardball host Chris Matthews recently reminded us in an exchange with Senator Zell Miller, Thomas Jefferson also once said that the first order of the statesman is to get elected. To that end, it behooves an incumbent to be as active as possible in order to have a positive record on which to run for re-election. To be “rehired,” a legislator must show that he or she has “done something” during his or her time in office.

I know this from firsthand experience. I spent time during college as a legislative intern for a politician in state government who openly attempted to make full use of the maximum number of bills that could be introduced per session. For a member of the minority party of the legislature, the introduction of a bill becomes even more meaningful. It might be the only tangible action that he or she is able to control, since bills are often left languishing in committee.

“What have you done?” This is the natural and proper question for any voter to ask a candidate for a political office. And so the impetus is for the legislator who has an interest in being re-elected to add new laws to our already existing web of legislation. More and more of these bills and programs address narrower and narrower slices of life. This multiplicity of legislation leads the government ever to seek new areas of life in which to insinuate itself.

Add One, Take Away Two

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

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

For Stossel’s solution to work, both candidates and constituents would need to be convinced that reining in the scope and size of the state is “doing something.” We should all understand that getting rid of bad or superfluous laws is just as central to the role of legislator as making new ones. And for this to occur, voters will need to pressure lawmakers. As Lord Acton reminded us: “Everybody likes to get as much power as circumstances allow, and nobody will vote for a self-denying ordinance.”

Jordan J. Ballor is a Communications Associate at the Acton Institute

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute —, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)

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