Somewhere in our history, size began to matter. When it comes to government, it’s either big or small.
A tax is big government; a tax cut is small government. Bureaucracy is big government; privatization is small government. The EPA is big government; cutting regulations is small government. And most of all, Democrats are big government; Republicans are small government.
Last week, in his State of the Union address, President Obama called for “smarter government.” He said, “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
For far too long, the big-little dichotomy has dominated American conceptions of government. With the New Deal, people began to see “big government” as a way to ensure economic stability. Roosevelt’s alphabet soup aimed to use government to remedy many of the American economy’s ailments and provide for those in need.
In the ’80s, Reagan promised us that we would be able to achieve more as individuals with a small government that stays out of the way. If government were limited, everyone would do better, and the sum of our success would make American prosperity grow.
But what sounds good in a political ad doesn’t necessarily make good policy sense. If we allow ourselves to continue to pursue big vs. little, we might forget the more important fight: smarter vs. dumber.
Next year, Obamacare will be implemented. The government’s healthcare program will begin to cover Americans who are currently covered by other healthcare programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Shrinking Medicare by $700 billion is necessary to ensure that tax dollars aren’t wasted by covering the same beneficiaries twice — can we agree that this is smarter?
The IRS fails to collect $400 billion in taxes every year. Advocates of budget cuts often attempt to reduce IRS funding, but every dollar cut from the budget results in another $7 of uncollected revenue. Meanwhile, the agency brings in $10 for every dollar it spends on collecting taxes. In 2011, IRS commissioner Doug Shulman explained that a proposed $600 million cut in IRS funding would result in $4 billion in lost revenue and an increase in tax evasion. If making the IRS “bigger” keeps us from losing money, can we agree that this is smarter government?
Our tax code is complicated and riddled with loopholes that don’t make sense. The ones that Obama brandishes are tax breaks for hedge fund managers and those who own private jets. Yet loopholes are out there for everyone.
As a matter of fact, nine of the 10 most expensive loopholes to the federal government are found in the tax code that applies to you, me and our parents — not the one that applies to Bain Capital, Dow Chemical and Apple. Many studies have shown that everyone could pay lower taxes and federal revenue would increase if there were fewer loopholes. If a less complicated tax code means lower taxes and more revenue, can we agree that this is smarter government?
These are just some of the many examples where big and small don’t matter, but smarter does.
During the Reagan years, the big-small argument was a loser for Democrats who were painted as the party of “Welfare Queens” and big spenders.
President Clinton changed the debate. He knew that big-small was a losing argument, so he changed his approach. He stopped talking about what was big and what was small and started to think about what was smart and what was dumb. Remember, it was Clinton who promised to “end welfare as we know it,” and he eventually signed the law that did so.
Today, everyone in Washington needs to stop talking big-small and start thinking smart-dumb.
We can’t pigeonhole our government programs into a one-size-fits-all format. To solve complex issues we need a dynamic approach.
Most of all, government isn’t about big or small. It’s about how you use what you’ve got.
Adam Silver is a College junior and master of public administration candidate from Scottsdale, Ariz. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him @adamtsilver. “The Silver Lining” appears every other Thursday.