Cutting Government Is An Exceptional Skill

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Cutting Government Is An Exceptional Skill

It’s customary in politics to tout a candidate’s experience in government. As a bystander, I’ve never been impressed.

It’s not in the nature of government to shrink.What has mattered to me were his or her ideas for the future. It’s a candidate’s vision for what government should and should not do that determined my enthusiasm for the campaign.

Plus, I’m not looking for a well-run government. I’m looking to get rid of the whole mess, or, at least someone to cut it as deeply as possible.

It’s not in the nature of government to shrink. Looking for a chief executive to cut government is like looking for a boss who is good at running off customers and driving down the stock price. It goes against the grain.

Might doing that take some expertise? Probably. And that comes from actual experience. Hence does this political season seem to be adding some nuance to the simple conclusion that experience in government doesn’t matter.

Not All Experience

Hillary Clinton’s experience in government is extensive, even massive. She has never been in a topmost executive spot, but Senator and Secretary of State are pretty close. Instead of growing humble, however, she has become more dedicated to big government.

True, her ambitions for what she can do in office boil down to collectivist cliches. However, it’s pretty clear that government has worked for her quite as much as she has worked for the government. It’s the only world she has ever known, and it’s been insanely beneficial to her. It’s her life.

Through decades of experience at ever higher levels, she has found that the business of pay-to-play politics really does pay, and in more ways than purely financial ones. It’s good to be at the center of power, ever closer to the public-private nexus at which the big deals happen.

The vast majority of the government’s objectives are non-viable. This is not the kind of government experience I regard as credible. She has only grown the state in ways that are compatible with her own personal advance. And this is typical with politicians. As the state grows, or especially the sector they control, so too grows their reputation and career prospects. This all happens at our expense.

For this reason, we all have reason to be suspicious of experience in government. This kind of experience is a negative. Yes, she knows how the system works and she is realistic about it. But her understanding of what works is what works for her.

And expanding government power always and everywhere works for the politicians who are in charge. They gain the reward and then work to avoid the consequences of the mess they make.

Yet Nobody in Particular Can Manage Government

Donald Trump brags about his management experience. In forecasting what kind of government executive he will be, he draws on his experience as a real estate development. He talks about the country as a whole as if it were one of his country clubs. The government is the management team, and he is the CEO. He thinks he will bring his managerial genius to bear on the entire thing and make it all work.

That’s not just creepy; it is also unworkable.

The government consists of nearly two million civilian employees, all told: entrenched careerists who have no interest at all in complying with an elected leader’s dictate. Bureaucrats know they will outlast their temporary managers. And they are not looking for marching orders. They constitute a machinery that works on its own, following countless pages of regulations, some of which have a historical legacy dating back 150 years.

Then there’s the problem that the vast majority of the government’s objectives are non-viable. No matter how much you press the minions of the nation-state, they can’t achieve their goal – such as ridding the world of marijuana, for example.

The natural path of government is to grow. To reverse that direction is like reversing a river, defying gravity, or standing against the tide.What’s weird about listening to Trump is that he doesn’t seem to make any distinction between the businesses he runs and the government he wants to head. He seems to think that both can be an extension of his personal will. One Will. His Way. Just as with every authoritarian, reality must conform to his word.

He is not right in either case, but in the case of his own private-sector accomplishments, he might just be bragging. In the case of the public sector, he is absolutely deluded.

Maybe a bit of government experience would tame his wild ambitions. It wouldn’t be a bad thing, at least, to approach the job with at least a hint of humility, such as that which a two-term president usually has by the end.

Notice that Obama hasn’t had many grand visions or goals since Obamacare came and destroyed what was good about healthcare? That’s probably because his experience has taught him something.

Johnson and Weld
What if one’s experience in government has cultivated a different and seemingly impossible talent? What if during your tenure as a manager in the public sector you actually managed to cut bureaucracy, regulation, taxes, and spending?

I can’t even imagine a more difficult and counterintuitive experience. The natural path of government is to grow. To reverse that direction is like reversing a river, defying gravity, or standing against the tide.

Such feats are not for the faint of heart. Very few have ever managed such a thing. Sometimes it happens almost by accident, as with the case of Jimmy Carter, who deregulated on a case-by-case basis, in a way having nothing to do with ideology.

Even if you shrank the government just a bit, there is a degree of congratulations in order. The cunning, the managerial expertise, the persuasive power, the sheer competence necessary for such a feat are all things that elicit wonder.
By all reports, both Gary Johnson and William Weld, now the nominees for the Libertarian Party ticket, have actually done these things. Cato wrote in 2002 that Johnson “has cut the state income tax, the gasoline tax, the state capital gains tax, and the unemployment tax. In 2001, he wanted a further 7 percent reduction in income tax rates. The legislature cut the tax less than he wanted, so he vetoed the bill. In 1999, he vetoed a 12 cent per pack cigarette tax hike because he opposes all tax hikes…. In 2000, he signed a residential property tax cap that will limit increases in valuations to 3 percent per year. Johnson has successfully sponsored other government reform initiatives such as an electricity deregulation bill, a 10 percent reduction in state payrolls, and a Medicaid cost-cutting plan….”

As for Weld, Cato wrote:

  • 1992, “A.” Weld cut the budget and pushed to reduce income and capital gains taxes.
  • 1994, “B.” Weld cut spending, balanced the budget, improved the state’s bond rating, and cut numerous taxes. Even with a Democratic legislature, “Weld has a stunningly successful fiscal record.”
  • 1996, “B.” Weld “began to engage in a whirlwind of government downsizing. In his first two years in office, the state budget actually declined in nominal terms—an astonishing achievement given the pro-spending inclinations of the legislature. Weld privatized state services, slashed the public payroll, and cut general welfare assistance for employable adults. Weld has also been a supply-side tax cutter.”

Together, we are told, they have 16 years of executive experience under their belts. They have battled the bureaucracies, formed the necessary coalitions, traversed the difficult terrain of donor interests, understood the costs and benefits of particular legislative paths, and so on. They were not perfect; far from it. But having achieved liberalization at all is the notable fact.

Government Is a Job and It Requires Skill

Using a government office to limit government is a herculean job.I recall having a conversation with Gary about this, and it got me thinking about what it means to have a record in government. What do you learn? What are the obstacles one faces?

Someone had asked him why, when he was governor, he didn’t just eliminate restrictions on marriage rather than passing a new bill that outright legalized same-sex marriage. He responded that the other path would have been ideal, but he discovered that eliminating all restrictions would mean changing some 250 laws and regulations. Passing a single bill was easier and more cost effective.

Now, this strikes me as very interesting. It’s the kind of information you would only know from having been there and having done that. Otherwise, the naive observer would just assume that you can change the law with a stroke. What you want you get.

But not so. Here we see that government experience really does mean something. When you listen to both Johnson and Weld talk, you pick up that their perspective is strongly shaped by their experience in what is possible, how the bureaucracy works, what it is like to win in legislative struggles with ideological opponents, how to deal with special interests, what is worth fighting for and what is not, and so on.

In the end, using a government office to limit government is a herculean job. The job only gets done if the person has the right ideas and knows something about how to get from here to there.

As much as I like a candidate with all the right ideas and all the right ambitions, that is not really enough. You can hire a wonderful ideologue for a position in government only to discover that he or she lacks the managerial prowess to actually achieve anything once there. No one is made freer because the right person with the right ideas is elected; this person must also have talent. Having one trait (the right ideas) without the other (the skill to implement them) is insufficient.

As with any other job, experience might indeed matter.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education and CLO of the startup Author of five books, and many thousands of articles, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.  Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook. Email. Tweets by @jeffreyatucker

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Cutting Government Is An Exceptional Skill

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