By Robert Higgs
Libertarians dream of cutting back the bloated Leviathan under whose weight people now struggle simply to catch their breath—breathing freely being almost beyond imagination. A few of us dream of eliminating the state altogether, however much we recognize the impossibility of doing so. Many more libertarians, however, believe that in propitious circumstances, the state might be slashed substantially.
In the real-world politics of Washington, D.C., however, the struggle to contain the state’s growth always pertains to moving the line of scrimmage two or three inches closer to the goal of a genuinely free society from its present location only a few yards away from the statists’ end zone of complete government domination of all social and economic affairs. Quarreling and marshaling their forces in connection with adding or subtracting a billion dollars here and there in the budget or altering a few minor details of a proposed statute or regulation, the contestants are currently fighting over what mathematicians used to call “the third order of smalls.” Even when a budget cut is seemingly won, it almost always turns out to be fraudulent, a deceitful product of budgetary sleight of hand.
So, let us allow ourselves to dream an impossible dream, and for concreteness, let us say that we seek to cut the state in half. Again for concreteness, let us say that our goal is to reduce real federal outlays by half. Even as hogtied as we now find ourselves, the state cannot stop us from dreaming, so let us revel in our dream.
Unfortunately, even our impossible dream—chopping 50 percent off of real federal outlays—would not carry us to where we really seek to go. We want a free society, but not even cutting real federal outlays by half would allow us to attain that goal. Indeed, it would leave us with the amount of real federal outlays the government actually made in 1984; and the Leviathan of 1984 is exactly the one of which I wrote in the original preface of my book Crisis and Leviathan, as follows:
Now, in virtually every dimension, our lives revolve within rigid limits circumscribed by government authorities; we are constrained continually and on all sides by Big Government. Regulations clutter the landscape. Governmental spending equals almost four-tenths of the gross national product.”
In short, just half the federal government’s current real outlays would suffice to sustain what I referred to in the mid-1980s as “that awesome aggregation of forces, programs, and activities we know as Big Government.
Anyone who understands the realities of how U.S. politics and government work today also understands that cutting the government’s real outlays in half is impossible unless some freakishly unlikely event, such as an enormous asteroid’s striking the earth, should occur. The only realistic libertarian goals—the only ones with even a ghost of a chance of attainment—are tantamount to removing a few grains of sand from the beaches of southern California. Not even the realization of my hypothetical “impossible dream” can create a free society; indeed, it can’t even bring us close to such a society. We have come too far; the monstrosity the American people have built is much, much too heavy for them to push off. So far as turning the United States into a free society is concerned, we simply cannot get there from here.
About the author: Robert Higgs
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation.