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Taming Leviathan

In his great political work entitled The Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes accurately described government spending as “Money . . . thrown amongst many, to be enjoyed by them that catch it.” In this book published in 1651, Hobbes explored the structure of government and argued that legitimate government could only be established through the consent of the governed. He used the Biblical word “Leviathan” (or sea monster) to describe this governmental structure. We only need to look at the size of our Federal government to know that Hobbes was accurate in his terminology. We have allowed our Leviathan to grow so massive that we are in danger of being devoured. Furthermore, we have borrowed money to feed his growth, which makes our monster exponentially more dangerous.

 Of course, we all know that the national debt will eventually devour us . . . or our children. If we had a dollar for every time a politician said that we need to eliminate spending in government, we would have no national debt. Driven by fear of our rapidly expanding national debt, the rhetoric of reining in government spending reached a deafening crescendo during the last election cycle. Now that the election has ended, the silence is equally deafening. The silence begs the question – how do we actually eliminate spending?

 Austerity has become the watchword across Europe. Great Britain, under Conservative Party rule, has started the process to drastically reduce their entitlement programs. Center-right governments in Germany and France are making strides in reducing the size of their welfare states. Cuts to programs have resulted in riots in Greece. Since most European countries economies are socialist and centrally controlled, the implementation of spending reductions are much harder to accomplish. The willpower of their politicians should be commended.

 In the United States, very few examples exist of politicians actually eliminating government programs. We have to look back to World War II to find an effective model for what must be done today. As the United States began preparations for World War II, Sen. Harry Byrd objected to the idea of raising taxes to fund the war. Instead, he proposed forming a committee to indentify nonessential federal spending and recommend their reduction or elimination.

 Consequently, the Byrd Committee (Joint Committee on Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures) was created in 1941 and operated until 1974. The committee was composed of members of both the Senate and House of Representatives. In the early years, it was responsible for the elimination of New Deal programs such as Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration and the reduction of Works Project Administration. It also made frequent recommendations for the reduction of federal personnel. It could be argued that the elimination of these programs combined with the cessation of the war effort at the end of World War II freed up enough private capital to spur the economic recovery of the 1950’s.

 A modern version of the Byrd Committee could serve as a model for spending reform on the state level and indirectly control the Federal funds that flow through state agencies. Like its Federal counterpart, the state-level committee would consist of members from both the House and Senate. Granted with subpoena powers, it would have the necessary authority to delve into the spending habits of state agencies. Any recommendations made would require an immediate vote on the floor. The effect of this committee could be far reaching. Whether reviewing audit reports of the state agencies, studying the benefit or lack thereof of state participation in Federal programs or debating legislation to reform specific agencies, efficiency for the end user would be improved and the savings to the taxpayers could be immense.

 The implementation of this committee on a state level would not be difficult. The General Assembly currently uses the Legislative Audit Council (LAC) to conduct independent audits of state agencies on a limited basis. The LAC could be merged into the committee to provide the necessary framework for a quick implementation.

 Efforts to eliminate taxes are an easy sell in any political climate, while efforts to eliminate spending require a major crisis to overcome the typical voter’s sense of self interest. The major crisis that we face today goes beyond the current recession – it is a crisis of debt. Our national debt has exceeded fifty percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) only twice in our history – during World War II and now. Those politicians in 1941 had the courage to eliminate spending in the face of crisis. They knew how to tame Leviathan, at least for a little while. As elected officials, we must have their courage today.