The Budget Crisis – Making Economic Sense

In politics fall, not spring, is the silly season. How many times have we seen the farce: the crises deadline in October, the budget “summit” between the Executive and Congress, and the piteous wails of liberals and centrists that those wonderful, hard-working, dedicated “federal workers” may be “furloughed,” which unfortunately does not mean that they are thrown on the beach to find their way in the productive private sector.

The dread furlough means that for a few days or so, the oppressed taxpaying public gets to keep a bit more of its own money, while the federal workers get a rare chance to apply their dedication without mulcting the taxpayers: an opportunity that these bureaucrats invariably seem to pass up.

Has it occurred to many citizens that, for the few blessed days of federal shutdown, the world does not come to an end? That the stars remain in their courses, and everyone goes about their daily life as before?

I would like to offer a modest proposal, giving us a chance to see precisely how vital to our survival and prosperity is the Leviathan federal government, and how much we are truly willing to pay for its care and feeding. Let us try a great social experiment: for one year, one exhilarating jubilee year, we furlough, without pay, the Internal Revenue Service and the rest of the revenue-gathering functions of the Department of Treasury.

That is, for one year, suspend all federal taxes and float no public debt, either newly incurred or even for payment of existing interest or principal. And then let us see how much the American public is willing to kick into, purely voluntarily, the public till.

We make these voluntary contributions strictly anonymous, so that there will be no incentive for individuals and institutions to collect brownie-points from the feds for current voluntary giving. We allow no carryover of funds or surplus, so that any federal spending for the year–including the piteous importuning of Americans for funds–takes place strictly out of next year’s revenue.

It will then be fascinating to see how much the American public is truly willing to pay, how much it thinks the federal government is really worth, how much it is really convinced by all the slick cons: by the spectre of roads falling apart, cancer cures aborted, by invocations of the “common good,” the “public interest,” the “national security,” to say nothing of the favorite economists’ ploys of “public goods” and “externalities.”

It would be even more instructive to allow the various anonymous contributors to check off what specific services or agencies they wish to earmark for expenditure of their funds. It would be still more fun to see vicious and truthful competitive advertising between bureaus: “No, no, don’t contribute to those lazy louts in the Department of Transportation (or whatever), give to us.” For once, government propaganda might even prove to be instructive and enjoyable.

The precedent has already been set: if it is proper and legitimate for President Bush and his administration to beg Japan, Germany, and other nations for funds for our military adventures in the Persian Gulf, why shouldn’t they be forced, at least for one glorious year, to beg for funds from the American people, instead of wielding their usual bludgeon?

The 1990 furlough crisis highlights some suggestive but neglected aspects of common thinking about the budget. In the first place, all parties are talking about “fair sharing of the pain,” of the “necessity to inflict pain,” etc. How come that government, and only government, is regularly associated with a systematic infliction of pain?

In contemplating the activities of Sony or Proctor and Gamble or countless other private firms, do we ask ourselves how much pain they propose to inflict upon us in the coming year? Why is it that government, and only government, is regularly coupled with pain: like ham-and-eggs, or . . . death-and-taxes? Perhaps we should begin to ask ourselves why government and pain are Gemini twins, and whether we really need an institution that consists of a massive engine for the imposition and administration of pain and suffering. Is there no better way to run our affairs?

Another curious note: it is now the accepted orthodoxy of our liberal and centrist establishment that taxes must be raised,  regardless of where we are in the business cycle. So strong is this article of faith that the fact that we are already in a recession (and intelligent observers do not have to wait for the National Bureau of Economic Research to tell us that retroactively) seems to make no dent whatever in the thirst for higher taxes.

And yet there is no school of economic thought–be it New Classical, Keynesian, monetarist, or Austrian–that advocates raising taxes in a recession. Indeed, both Keynesians and Austrians would advocate cutting taxes in a recession, albeit for different reasons.

So whence this fanatical devotion to higher taxes? The liberal-centrists profess its source to be deep worry about the federal deficit. But since these very same people, not too long ago, scoffed at worry about the deficit as impossibly Neanderthal and reactionary, and since right now these same people brusquely dismiss any call for lower government spending as ipso facto absurd, one suspects a not very cleverly hidden agenda at work.

Namely: a love for higher taxes and for higher government spending for their own sake, or, rather, for the sake of expanding statism and collectivism as contrasted with the private sector.

There is one way we can put our hypothesis to the test: shouldn’t these newfound worriers about the deficit delight in our modest proposal one year with no deficit at all, one year with no infliction of pain whatever? Wanna bet?

Chapter 64 The Budget Crisis, from Murray Rothbard’s Making Economic Sense


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