Is there anyone in Washington, D.C., who recognizes any limit to what the government can or should do? Anyone in the California State House? In New York City Hall?
For those whose eyes glaze over when government budgets come up in the conversation, Joel Miller’s book just may wake them up.
For instance, did you know there’s a federal regulation governing the size of the holes in Swiss cheese? No kidding: the holes are to be from 3/8” to 13/16” in diameter. “Yes, regulators actually spend time and money coming up with these mind-numbing array of rules” (p. 212).
In 2004, the Federal Register was 75,676 pages long and the Code of Federal Regulations, 147,639 pages (p. 31), the latter growing by 20,000 pages a year. For lighter reading, the Medicare rules occupy 130,000 pages (p. 134).
Meanwhile, there are some 4,000 federal offenses listed in our law books.
It’d be funny, if it weren’t killing us. Miller’s articles and commentaries have appeared in The American Spectator, WorldNetDaily, The Sacramento Union, and elsewhere, and he knows how to state his case.
The overgrowth of government, says Miller, is strangling commerce, stifling innovation, devouring prosperity, and impeding our God-given right to pursue happiness.
How Does It Hurt?
“For those that can’t wait,” he writes (p. 5), “here’s the whole story in a sound bite: AS GOVERNMENT INCREASES IN QUANTITY, OUR LIVES DECREASE IN QUALITY.”
Miller takes pains to show how excessive government meddling drives up the cost of home ownership (Chapter 16); forces businesses to relocate to other states or even to other countries (Chapter 20); retards technological progress (Chapter 19); stops the creation of new businesses (Chapter 18); and so diminishes the purchasing power of the dollars you have left after taxes, that today it takes two incomes in a family to do the work of one, circa 1970 (pp. 138–139).
“What stifles commerce, stifles life,” he says (p. 145). After the first two dozen real-life examples, the reader is prepared to concede the point.
Really, it’s all just common sense. You don’t need a degree in economics to understand that money you pay out in taxes is money you can’t spend on other things, be they necessities or luxuries. As for the businesses who sell you goods and services, they’re paying taxes, too — and plenty of them. It also costs them money to comply with federal regulations that cover everything from the racial composition of the workforce to the design of office furniture. They have to make up these expenses somehow, and the only way to do it is to charge higher prices. So the government is hitting you twice — with the taxes you pay and the higher prices you pay to cover the extra expenses that government imposes on business.
What does it cost, all told?
In 1938, $8 billion in taxes covered the cost of government. Today, our government costs us around $2.6 trillion (p. 24). Adjusting for inflation ($8 billion in 1938=$107 billion in today’s money), that’s a 24-fold increase.
And what’s the cost of all the regulation? A 2004 estimate placed it at $913 billion a year (p. 120).
Meanwhile in 2004, it cost $278,000 to obtain a “medallion” (license) to operate a taxicab in New York City (p. 114).
Why So Big?
It would be easy, in reviewing this book, to go off the deep end with the numbers or to get sidetracked by little gems of information like this: as part of the Clinton administration’s “Reinventing Government” project, our federal government spent $2 million of our money on a study of “bovine flatulence” (p. 47).
Who in his right mind would ever have wanted our government to grow so big, so intrusive, and so wasteful? Isn’t that like planting kudzu in your cornfield? Or deciding that your salmon farm could really use some lampreys?
But it didn’t happen like that. It wasn’t done on purpose.
Miller sees government overgrowth as a historical process, with its dynamics built into the system and rooted in the fallen human heart. He cites John C. Calhoun, the fiery South Carolina senator of the 1830s (p. 72):
“Nothing is more difficult than to equalize the action of the government, in reference to the various and diversified interests of the community, and nothing more easy than to pervert its powers into instruments to aggrandize and enrich one or more interests by oppressing and impoverishing the others.”
Calhoun was talking about Congress favoring the North at the expense of the South. Today the picture is more complicated — as it would have to be, with some 35,000 lobbyists (p. 36) on the loose in Washington, representing hundreds of special interest groups, all seeking preferential treatment from the lawmakers.
Briefly, here are the dynamics that warp the system.
- Special interest groups — representing diverse bodies of citizens — jockey for favors from the government.
- Depending on these groups’ support for re-election, legislators go out of their way to oblige them.
- Legislators and executives react to crises, real or imaginary, by enacting more laws and creating more programs.
- Politicians and bureaucrats themselves are special interest groups. Within a bureaucracy, there is always the quest for a bigger and bigger share of the budget. Reporters used to call this “empire building.”
So we have today 1,300 assorted federal agencies (p. 24). In 1938, the federal government employed 1 million people; today, almost 17 million. And what do these agencies do? “Nowadays, new regulations flow daily from the state spigot … [p]romiscuously” (p. 31).
Why Won’t It Shrink?
Our elected leaders, Republican and Democrat alike, have tried various schemes to rein in the growth of government. So far, no one has succeeded. Why not?
- Special interests doggedly resist reform. Consider the intransigence with which the national teachers’ unions oppose every effort to reform public education, all the while campaigning tirelessly for more and more money.
- The agencies themselves resist reform. No bureaucrat wants to lose his job, and many politicians can’t function without the support of AFSCME, the government employees’ union.
- The citizens who compose the special interests are willing to see other interest groups lose government patronage, but not their own.
- The problem is so big! If a new president decided to devote every day to rescinding the executive orders issued by his predecessors, in eight years in office, he’d hardly make a dent in it. And how do you even begin to edit down a Code of Federal Regulations that’s almost 150,000 pages long? The accumulated inertia of government growth borders on the incalculable. Who can perform these Herculean tasks?
It would have been nice if Miller could have told us how to go about it; but there is no “fairy-tale ending,” he concedes (p. 196).
“Immediate political reform is unlikely,” Miller says (p. 197). People develop coping mechanisms for living with Big Government; they get used to it, and there’s no fervent call for reform.
The situation is not completely hopeless. “Markets push back,” Miller says (p. 199), and some of the people are beginning to wake up. “The fact that Social Security reform is discussed at all is evidence of a positive move” (p. 200). But, “[h]appily ever after is still a long way off.”
The Hope of Christian Reconstruction
After 200 pages of bad news, albeit delivered with style and a sense of humor, Miller’s conclusion is a letdown. For optimism we must turn elsewhere.
Chalcedon’s message of Christian Reconstruction offers a long-term solution to this problem — starting small, by reordering the individual’s relationship with God. We have to learn, all over again, how to put God first; and then reconstruct our family relationships, and then our church and our local community, and so on, always working from the bottom up.
Big Government, aka socialism, is a system that is failing and will continue to fail. Miller has not emphasized that. But in Western Europe this failure is considerably more advanced than in America, and we can see it unraveling before our eyes. It’s literally killing Europe with economic stagnation and cultural decay, loss of incentive for the present and loss of faith in the future, and diminishing marginal birth rates. We can surely see that that is not the way we want to go.
Christian Reconstruction strives to set up an alternative to Big Government, a system that will either gradually replace it or else be in position to replace it when it fails — just as, when the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, the Church kept civilization alive.
One example of this is homeschooling. As public education grows more expensive and unwieldy, and less and less productive, the home education movement has arisen as an effective and affordable alternative now serving an estimated 2 million children — with room for millions and millions more. That’s why Christian Reconstructionists support it.
What if Christians tithed faithfully? Churches, ministries, and private charities would have the resources to outperform the government in providing social services, shouldering more and more of the burden — just as the Bible says we should.
The authors of our Constitution sought to limit government, but history shows they didn’t limit it enough. The Bible allots to the civil government the duties of administering justice and providing for the national defense, and everything else is left up to us.
And God’s way is the way it should be.