Don't Wait Until the War Ends to Roll Back the Federal Establishment

(The following article will soon appear in a special issue of the journal of the Center of the American Experiment, headquartered in Minnesota.)

On September 20, 2001, a joint session of the U.S. Congress and millions of citizens here and abroad heard a powerfully eloquent address from the President of the United States.  It was strong, firm, confident, and memorable.  It will surely rank as one of the best any chief executive ever gave on the Hill.  It filled all but perhaps a few with pride and hope that our president will succeed in vanquishing an evil foe.  If it had been baseball, it would have been a triple.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

By virtue of its absence in the speech, however, one not-so-small item kept the President's address from being a home run—a strategy for ensuring that the present crisis does not become a permanent excuse for permanently bigger government.  A major reason government almost never retreats to its former size after it engages a common foreign foe is that we don't start downsizing until it's too late.   The time to do so is at the onset of the crisis itself, or as soon thereafter as we can get the politicians to muster the courage.

The president could have begun the process in his speech of September 20 had he included something like this:

"My fellow Americans, times of emergencies are times for prioritizing.  Just as you in your home or business must reorganize your affairs when crisis grips, so must the federal establishment.  We will not repeat the `guns and butter' mistake of the Johnson years when Washington thought nothing of fighting a major war and ballooning its domestic spending at the same time.  That produced 30 years of deficits, soaring inflation, and a bloated government we're still trying to pay for.  We're not going to fight a major war and pretend that it's free or that everything else in the budget is just as important.

"Moreover, I intend to safeguard the federal surplus and even more importantly, to safeguard the pocketbooks of all you hard-working citizens whose unflagging sacrifices are already paying the bills of the most gargantuan central government in American history. 

"Accordingly, I am announcing tonight that this war—whatever its costs—will be paid for dollar for dollar by reductions in other areas of government spending.  To make it real, let me offer a few examples.

"Lots of artists are on the federal dole.  Now please don't misunderstand me.  I love art.  But in wartime, art isn't priority #1.  It ain't even priority #1 million.  I will demand of Congress that all subsidies to the arts and the National Endowment for the Arts be abolished.  To my artist friends who will have to seek sustenance elsewhere, here's my advice: Take a page from the Girl Scouts.  Sell cookies.  If you can't do that, here's a novel idea: Sell your art!  You've got a whopping 280 million prospective customers out there, so hit the bricks.  And to all other Americans, let me assure you that there will still be plenty of art to go around.  Washington didn't buy any of it in the 1940s and even at the height of World War II, America was as culturally and artistically advanced as any nation on the planet.

"That's just for starters.  We're going to eliminate the more than $80 billion identified by the Cato Institute as outright corporate welfare.  And we're going to stop dishing out taxpayer money to bankroll Big Government lobbies and a zoo of pork barrel projects. And since there's essentially nothing to show for the billions spent annually by the federal Department of Education, we're going to take an axe to that bureaucracy as well—and put the schools back in the hands of state and local folks just like you.

"And if we have to push the envelope in crimping civil liberties, we will do so in both a minimal and temporary fashion.  The preservation of our civil liberties must be among the measures by which the American people judge how my administration deals with this crisis.  Will we be at least as free when all is said and done as we were before all this started?  If not, I will have failed a mighty important test of any leader of a free people.

"We will get our priorities in order here in Washington.  Government's most important function—indeed, the single most legitimate one under the Constitution—is to keep the country safe.  All else pales by comparison."

The president did not say these things on September 20, but the day is still young.  He can still say them, and all freedom-loving Americans should be urging him now to do so.

"A major reason government almost never retreats to its former size after it engages a common foreign foe is that we don't start downsizing until it's too late."