September 14, 2014
Focus on Shrinking the Federal Government
Small government sentiments run strong in Indiana, and we can be pleased with many of the outcomes it fosters: low taxes, a more thoughtful regulatory environment and more personal freedom. Still, I think much of the small government movement thought in Indiana targets the wrong problems. In so doing its supporters quite perversely weaken their arguments and lessen their influence.
Our founders lived in a world with a very small and limited federal government, stronger states and typically quite robust local governments. In the middle 20th century, power flipped to the federal government as it dealt with World War I and II, the Cold War and domestic problems of depression, poverty and civil rights.
In some areas this arrangement worked well, in some areas we saw only modest improvements and in other areas federal involvement worsened the situation at high cost.
Today many of our national problems have endured all the federal intervention we can stand. Most of our current problems are local: schools, crime, housing, unemployment, and poverty. But our local government and local institutions are as weak as they have ever been. Yet here in Indiana my friends who argue for small government focus almost exclusively on local government. They are missing the point.
Our republican form of government promotes checks and balances in two ways. We learn in school that the legislative, executive and judicial branches protect against the concentration of power in one place, but so too does federalism itself. Strong state and local governments weaken the domestic power of the federal government by forcing tax and spending policies to the appropriate level of government.
By focusing nearly all their efforts on shrinking local government, our small government advocates actually promote a stronger, larger and less responsive federal government. But there's more to the problem than just this focus.
There are lots of Hoosiers who want a smaller federal government that is less costly and less intrusive. But many of these citizens actually want more state and local government and the services they provide. I want, and am willing to pay for, more sidewalks, better local schools, better playgrounds for my kids and better stocked libraries. I have advocated on this page for the elimination of the federal departments of energy and education, which would collectively save Hoosiers a cool half-billion dollars. To be sure we’d be better off with some major local government reforms, but that is not where the big cost savings lie.
Moving spending from the federal to state and local levels gives us more and better choices and a more responsive (and maybe cheaper government). But Indiana's small government advocates don't seem to care about that. They are content to rail against a local community scraping together $50,000 to spruce up a park or community pool while largely ignoring the wholly unnecessary U.S. Department of Education.
If I were granted one wish this election season, it would be that my friends who advocate small government would turn most of their attention towards federalism issues.
About the Author
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