Few Americans would argue with the proposition that the most critical, indeed the most indispensable, duty of the federal government is to protect the American people from foreign attack. If it loses your mail or forgets to feed the elephants at the National Zoo, we’ll manage to get by. But if its negligence or incompetence invites assault, people get killed. Too much negligence or incompetence in the matter of defense kills whole countries.
Now hold that thought for a minute.
On Thursday, July 22, the 9/11 Commission reported after a 19-month investigation of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that the failure of Congress and agencies tasked with defending the nation was staggering in its scope. Warning signs ignored. Communications botched. Planning and organization undermined. The looming threat from our enemies was left to, as the New York Times put it, "a disparate collection of uncoordinated, underfinanced and dysfunctional government agencies." Excuse me, but is this what we pay hundreds of billions of dollars in defense-related tax dollars for every year?
Now hold that one for a minute too. I’ll add some more dots and then try to connect them.
During the last week of July, the Democratic Party held its national convention, nominated its presidential ticket and put the final touches on its official platform. The message: Our Brobdingnagian federal edifice must get even larger. Much larger. And take on new duties and programs. John Kerry’s proposal for health care alone would add $800 billion to Washington’s price tag. According to the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, his spending plans in toto would balloon federal outlays by $226 billion in his first year alone—an amount that works out to about $2,000 per American family. Writing in the July 27 Wall Street Journal, Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that Kerry’s tax and spending proposals "would increase the deficit over 10 years by a minimum of about $1.2 trillion and, more likely, by well over $2 trillion."
This is a government whose reach scarcely leaves an aspect of American life untouched, from the cradle to the grave and the volume of our toilet bowl water in between. As a portion of our personal income, its tax and regulatory burden consumes at least five times what it did just a century ago. But to the folks gathered in Boston’s Fleet Center in the last week of July 2004, government is nowhere yet big enough.
In one sense, these dots just won’t connect. On one day, we learn that government failed horribly to accomplish its primary mission. A few days later, people who want to lead the nation tell us that we must send government more of our money and trust it more than ever with not only our lives, but just about everything else too. This welfare state of ours has become one big circle of 300 million people, each with his hands in the next fellow’s pocket.
Remember In Search of Excellence, the 1982 bestselling management book by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman? One of its salient points is that an organization gets off track when it no longer "sticks to the knitting." When it allows its mission to blur and be stretched far beyond its founding design, when it becomes distracted by endless and dubious new responsibilities, its core competency evaporates. It will fail to do what it is supposed to do, because it’s doing too much of what it’s not supposed to do.
It may come as a surprise to those who see aspirin made in Washington as the cure for every ailment, but the federal government is not God. It can’t even be a good Santa Claus because it can’t give anybody anything that it doesn’t first take from somebody else. It’s no Mother Theresa either, because on those occasions when it does some good it usually costs an arm and a leg and sends a big part of the bill to generations yet unborn. The fact is, the bigger government gets, the more it starts to look like Moe, Larry and Curly.
Am I being obscure here? Let me cut to the chase and make my point abundantly evident. There is a direct connection between the government failings of 9/11 and the assumption by government of countless responsibilities once regarded as the proper province of responsible adults in a free society. Americans can’t expect government to do virtually everything for them and do it well. They can’t have their proverbial cake and inhale it too; to assume otherwise is infantile, fairyland thinking. Americans must wake up. Making government smaller must become a centerpiece of the effort to make America safer. Period.
Republicans who read this and think they’re off the hook should listen up: You’re part of the problem too. With the GOP in full control of Congress, non-defense spending in the Bush administration—I’m talking about spending on "stuff" not related to the federal government’s core mission—rose so fast it makes me wonder if Ebenezer Scrooge was our Treasury Secretary during the Clinton years. This president is on the verge of becoming the first in living memory to veto absolutely nothing in his first term. An Education Department that the GOP once and rightly proposed to abolish now gets hefty annual increases. Today’s federal spending makes the fabled "guns and butter" of the Lyndon Johnson/Vietnam/Great Society years look like mere water pistols and margarine. The fact that John Kerry would squander even more doesn’t excuse such profligacy.
So let’s come to our senses and save this country. That process starts by all of us mustering whatever character and fortitude it takes to keep our hands in our own pockets.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based nonprofit research and educational institute. For more on the case for limiting government, see these essays by Reed: Are We Going the Way of Rome?, Save Us from People with Great Ideas, Why Limit Government?, and An Open Letter to Statists Everywhere.