There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a hard-nosed businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting – albeit depressing – article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

Government Growth

Government Growth

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

But let’s get back to Will’s article. He asserts that Wagner’s Law is bad news for advocates of smaller government.

…free-marketeers tend to insist that the key to achieving higher rates of economic growth is slashing the size of government. After all, it’s true that the private sector is better than government at putting resources to their most productive use and that some public spending crowds out private investment. If you’re really committed to the idea of stronger economic growth through government contraction, you’re pretty much committed to the idea that the pattern behind Wagner’s Law is a sort of fluke—a contingent correlation without any real cause-and-effect basis—and that there’s got to be some workaround or fix.

I don’t particularly agree with his characterization. You can believe (as I surely do) that smaller government would lead to faster growth without having to disbelieve, deny, or debunk Wagner’s Law.

  • First, it’s quite possible to have decent growth along with expanding government so long as other policy levers are moving in the right direction. Which is exactly what one Spanish scholar found when examining data for developed nations during the post-World War II period.
  • Second, it’s overly simplistic to characterize this debate as government or growth. The real issue is the rate of growth. After all, even France has a bit of growth in an average year. The real issue is whether there could be more growth with a lower level of taxes and spending. In other words, would the rest of the developed world grow faster with Hong Kong-sized government?

All that being said, Will certainly is right in his article when he points out that libertarians and other advocates of smaller government haven’t done a good job of constraining government spending.

He then examines some of the ideas have been proposed by folks on the right who want to constrain spending. Beginning with the starve-the-beast hypothesis.

The idea that it is possible to “starve the beast”—to reduce the size of government by starving the government of tax revenue—springs from this hope. But the actual effect of cutting taxes below the amount necessary to sustain current levels of government spending only underscores the unforgiving lawlikeness of Wagner’s Law. As our namesake Bill Niskanen showed, tax cuts that lead to budget shortfalls don’t lead to corresponding cuts in government spending. On the contrary, financing government spending through debt rather than taxes makes voters feel that government spending is cheaper than it really is, which makes them want even more of it.

Here’s my first substantive disagreement with Will. I’m definitely not in the all-we-have-to-do-is-cut-taxes camp, but I certainly like lower tax rates and I definitely believe that higher taxes would worsen our long-run fiscal outlook.

And I’ve looked closely at the starve-the-beast academic research. Niskanen’s study has some methodological problems and the Romer & Romer study that most people cite when arguing against the starve-the-beast hypothesis actually shows that cutting taxes is somewhat effective so long as tax cuts are durable.

Will then looks at whether it would be effective to end withholding.

…withholding made tax collection cheaper and more reliable. …paying taxes automatically and with a minimum of pain makes it less likely that you’ll be livid about them when you vote. The complaint…is the libertarian/conservative argument against a VAT or national sales tax in a nutshell. It’s the same line of reasoning that leads some libertarians and conservatives to flirt with the idea that we ought to pass a law that requires us to write a single, hugely infuriating check to the IRS each year.  The idea is that if voters are really ticked off about taxes, they’ll want lower tax rates. So taxes need to be as salient and painful—i.e., as inefficient and distortionary—as possible.

Will is skeptical of this approach, though I would point out that the one major developed economy that doesn’t have withholding is Hong Kong. And that’s a place that has successfully constrained government spending.

To be sure, the spending restraint could exist for other reasons (such as the spending cap in Article 107 of the jurisdiction’s Basic Law), but the hypothesis that people will want less government if taxes are painful is quite reasonable.

And, by the way, requiring lump-sum payments rather than withholding wouldn’t change the degree to which taxes are distortionary.

Will then turns his attention to the ‘supply-side” argument about lower tax rates.

Supply-siders generally present two scenarios, and neither helps reduce the size of government. One: If the tax cuts pushed by ticked-off taxpayers create supply-side stimulus and increase rather than decrease revenue, there’s no downward pressure on spending. …But it doesn’t make government smaller. Two: If tax cuts aren’t self-funding and simply leave a hole in the budget, the beast (as Niskanen showed) does not therefore get starved. Instead, spending feels cheap, the beast grows even more, and the tax bill gets shifted to the future.

Since I’ve already addressed the starve-the-beast issue, I’ll simply note that self-financing tax cuts (which do exist, though only in rare cases) are only possible if there’s a big uptick in growth and/or compliance. And to the extent that the revenue feedback is due to growth, that will mean that the burden of government spending will fall relative to the size of the private sector even if actual outlays stay the same.

Maybe I’m insufficiently libertarian, but I’ll take that outcome every day of the week. Heck, I’m willing to let government get bigger so long as

1, 2  - View Full Page