The Great Libertarian Offer

by Harry Browne

[From The Great Libertarian Offer, published in 2000]            

Today federal, state, and local taxes consume 47% of the national income. These taxes include:

  • Taxes you pay directly — income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, Social Security taxes, death taxes, and gift taxes.

  • Taxes you pay but don't see — taxes on corporations and imports that add to the price of everything you buy, employer taxes that reduce the wages you earn, and excise taxes that are hidden in the prices of bread, phone calls, and hundreds of other products and services you use in your daily life.

You pay these taxes one way or another — in a tax bill paid directly to the government, in money deducted from your paycheck, or in the price of what you buy. They total 47% of the national income.

You may pay a little more or a little less than the national average. But since you are subject to taxes coming at you from so many directions, your own taxes most likely are somewhere around the 47% average.

This means virtually half your working time is devoted to supporting government, leaving only half your working time to support yourself and your family.

Does it have to be this way?

No. At the start of the 20th century, government consumed only 8% of the national income.

  • Did people starve in the streets? No.

  • Was the country overrun by barbarians? No.

  • Were people defenseless against unsafe products? No.

  • Was crime rampant? No. In fact, crime was a much smaller problem than it is today.

  • Was the economy stagnant? No. The economy grew faster than it does now.

Imagine how much more prosperous, how much happier, how much easier your life would be if you could keep 92% of what you earn (with only 8% going to government), instead of splitting your income roughly 50-50 with the government.

  • What would you do for your children that you're unable to do now?

  • What kind of home would you live in?

  • What kind of travel would be possible?

  • How much more secure could you make your future?

YOU'RE NOT ALONE

I'm sure you realized long ago that government is far too big, too expensive, and too intrusive. And you probably wish there were some way to make it smaller.

You may think you're an exception — that most people believe government takes good care of them, government programs do more good than harm, and high taxes are necessary for a civilized society.

But that isn't the case. Just like you, Americans overwhelmingly think government is way too large, too costly, too meddlesome, and the least efficient way to solve problems. While most people might be fond of a government program here or there, they would gladly be rid of most of the rest of government.

Polls in recent years have found that:

  • 73% believe "the federal government is much too large and has too much power."

  • 67% believe "big government is the biggest threat to the country in the future."

  • 63% think "government regulation of business usually does more harm than good."

  • Only 22% "trust the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time."

  • 60% want a strong third party to provide a true alternative to what they're getting now.

People aren't hungry for more government. They are gagging on it. They've become dissatisfied with government, disgusted with politicians, and despairing of any improvement — so much so that only 48% of eligible voters bothered to vote in 1996. And only 38% voted in 1998. So no matter who wins any election, the outcome isn't a mandate for big government.

But Still Government Grows . . . 

Despite widespread opposition, government gets bigger and bigger — at all levels, relentlessly, even when the politicians claim to be for smaller government.

  • We elect a Republican President — and government gets bigger.

  • We elect a Democratic President — and government gets bigger.

  • We elect a Democratic or Republican Congress — and government gets bigger.

  • The President says "the era of big government is over" — and government gets bigger.

  • Congress passes tax cuts — and government gets bigger.

  • A "sweeping welfare reform" is enacted — and government gets bigger.

  • The politicians make "tough" budget cuts — and government gets bigger.

No matter what happens, and no matter what the politicians say, government gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

WHY GOVERNMENT GROWS

Government at all levels has grown relentlessly for one simple reason:

The people who profit from a government program are more motivated to support it than you are to oppose it.

It doesn't matter what the program is. It might provide a subsidy for college tuition. Or it may help a corporation by hampering its competitors. Or it might give money to an organization for its crusade.

It doesn't matter if a program is a cynical hoax — such as "humanitarian" aid for foreign governments, on condition that the money be spent only with politically influential American companies.

Whatever the program, those who profit from it are camped outside every politician's door to promote it, expand it, and make certain it's never eliminated.

Meanwhile, you and I who pay the bills are busy taking care of our own lives. We don't lobby in Washington, we don't spend all our time plotting to use government or even to stop it from growing.

So the odds are always on the side of those who benefit from each program.

The Biggest Beneficiaries

And, of course, one group benefits from virtually every government program — the politicians themselves. Each increase in government adds to their power over you and me and everyone else . . . 

  • The power to give subsidies to favored contributors and constituents;

  • The power to exempt friendly groups from taxes and regulations;

  • The power to impose special taxes or regulations on those who don't do what the politicians want.

Power is heady stuff. Even a politician who is principled and well intentioned will cherish the power that allows him to force people to do what he thinks is right — no matter how that may injure your life. So if the power is there, it will be used.

And so the lobbying merely encourages the politicians to do what they want to do anyway — keep government growing.

All the pressure guarantees a steady stream of new and bigger government programs — pushing your taxes upward, invading your privacy, violating the rights promised to you in the Constitution, and reducing your ability to take care of yourself and your family.

The Stacked Deck

The politicians divide us and conquer easily, by promoting each government program in isolation from the rest.

No issue or public debate ever compares the total benefit you get from all government programs with the total cost you have to pay. Instead, each debate is over a specific program, and is thereby rigged in favor of larger government.

Consider an outrageous but common example. Gasohol is a blend of 90% unleaded gasoline and 10% grain alcohol. It originally was advertised as a way to reduce our reliance on imported oil, but now its promoters justify it as "environmentally friendly."

But the grain alcohol that goes into gasohol adds over $1 per gallon to its costs, with an energy content less than that of gasoline. Not one gallon of gasohol would have been produced without over $5 billion in subsidies from the federal government to the gasohol industry.

So why in the world would Congress vote a new subsidy to gasohol year after year?

Consider how the debate unfolds.

Proponents: Those pushing for the subsidy include large corporations that produce gasohol, their suppliers, farmers who produce the corn that goes into gasohol, and companies that sell equipment to the corn farmers. Almost every Congressional district will be home to some beneficiaries of the program, so almost every Congressman will be under some pressure to support it.

Opponents: Almost no one has a strong incentive to fight the bill aggressively. Even the oil companies don't care much, because gasohol provides so little competition. A few Congressmen with no political ties to corn will oppose the bill to display their devotion to smaller government (even while supporting many other outrageous subsidies).

Your family will pay about $1 a week for the subsidy, certainly not enough to justify going to Washington to oppose it, or even to send a message to your Congressman. In fact, you have several reasons not to bother fighting the bill:

  • The burden of big government leaves you little time or money with which to try to influence Congress — or even to be aware that the subsidy is being considered. After all, you're working half the time just supporting government.

  • You know you have practically no chance to defeat the bill. Who are you to take on wealthy, high-powered companies and lobbyists? And even if you do stop it this year, you know it will be back next year.

  • Even if you could somehow end the subsidy once and for all, you know the politicians wouldn't return the money to you. They'd just spend it on something else.

  • Even if defeating the bill would reduce the overall cost of government by the amount of the proposed bill — and even if the savings would be returned to you — the potential reward is only about $1 a week per family, while the chance of success is ever so slight. Not a very good gamble. And right now your lawn needs mowing.

So gasohol sails through Congress virtually unopposed.

Much for, Little against

The same is true of any government program.

If you happen to be on the side of a subsidy, current or proposed, there are reasons to fight for it:

  • Any subsidy you get will help offset the tremendous burden of taxes and other government intrusions.

  • Your share of the loot could make a noticeable difference in your life, perhaps endowing you with many hundreds — or thousands — of dollars a year.

  • Even if you turn down the subsidy on principle, the politicians will simply divert the money elsewhere — meaning your noble gesture won't lower taxes for you or anyone else.

The benefits of almost any government program are lavished on a small group of people — and they have a powerful motivation to fight strenuously for it. But the costs of a program are dispersed thinly over millions of people, who see no reason to actively oppose programs as they come up for consideration.

The same principle applies to the regulations giving one company, industry, or group special benefits at the expense of the rest of us.

The lobbyists and interest groups don't even have to promise to help the politicians get reelected or offer any other personal inducement. The mere fact that they are there and we aren't tips the scales in favor of more and more government.

So the lack of active opposition to any given government expansion doesn't signify popular approval of it. It's merely a reflection of the way the deck is stacked against smaller government.

So one program after another is started — and then expanded year after year after year. And at the federal level, the programs now add up to $1.8 trillion a year going to grateful, energetic recipients.

The result is big government — big, big, big government — government that never stops growing.

Words & Deeds

Even when the public demonstrates an overwhelming desire to reduce government — such as when the voters gave Ronald Reagan a landslide victory for promising smaller government in 1980 — government keeps growing.

Over and over, politicians win elections by promising lower taxes and smaller government, only to abandon their promises and support bigger budgets, new programs, and new regulations.

They ingratiate themselves with us by railing against pork-barrel projects, even when they've voted for those very same projects or similar boondoggles.

When a politician is pressed to explain why he helps make government bigger, the stock response is that he must go along with these programs in order to get reelected or to remain influential in his party. Or he'll say we can't undo big government overnight, that we must reduce it gradually — as though making government bigger were a way of reducing it gradually.

Gradualism?

The gradualism argument is particularly misleading.

Government will never be reduced one program at a time because that would require some group to give up its subsidy first. As we've seen, each subsidy is large, concentrated, and immediate — while the benefit of a reduction is thinly distributed and likely to materialize only in the sweet bye and bye. So most people will work far harder to keep the few programs they like than to end any programs they don't like.

Thus the idea of reducing government a little at a time is a fantasy — a fantasy that allows us to keep expecting something that will never happen.

The politicians know they aren't going to reduce government gradually — or at all — but they want to stay on your good side even as they work against you. So they voice opposition to big government and get your vote, while they continue to feed the very same government.

No Difference between the Two Old Parties

If you grow tired of the excuses, they try to scare you by saying their opponents would be even worse. In truth, the differences between the two old parties are so negligible that we'd probably never notice if they swapped names.

Apart from the scandals, how different was the Reagan or Bush administration from the Clinton administration? During the Republican presidential administrations of 1981-1992, the federal government grew by 6.3% per year, while it grew by 3.3% yearly during the Clinton administration of 1993-2000.

How different was the Democratic Congress from the Republican Congress? During the first five years of the Republican Congress, government has grown by 3.2% yearly; during the final five years of the Democratic Congress, government grew by 3.9% yearly.

How different are the Republican Supreme Court nominees from the Democratic ones? The current Supreme Court judges were nominated by Presidents of both parties — and regardless of party, most of the judges were approved overwhelmingly by Senators from both parties. On the really important matters concerning the role of government, they all agree that the federal government is more important than the Constitution.

DO PEOPLE REALLY WANT BIG GOVERNMENT?

No matter who's in the White House, in Congress, or on the Supreme Court, government keeps growing — and at roughly the same speed.

The graph above shows how relentlessly the federal government has grown since the 1920s. And the graph at the beginning of this chapter shows government's share of the national income growing without letup — from 8% at the start of the 20th century to 47% today.

This gives rise to the tiresome refrain:

"People may say they want smaller government, but they don't want to give up the services government provides. They keep voting for the politicians who make government bigger and bigger."

Pundits say it smugly, politicians say it happily, and libertarians say it despairingly. However they say it, they all seem to believe it. But that over-used clichι ignores several facts of life:

  • The word "services" is a misnomer. Just because government spends your money doesn't mean you receive a service. Ask anyone to name his favorite government service and you'll probably be put on "hold" waiting for an answer.

  • As we've seen, even someone who hates big government might cling desperately to his own subsidy. After all, government is picking his pockets clean. And he knows that giving up his subsidy will simply free the government to give the money to someone more appreciative.

  • Voters rarely get a chance to vote for smaller government. Most of the time they've been offered a choice only between Democrats and Republicans — both of whom keep government growing. They rarely vote for a third party that's serious about reducing government — either because the third party is invisible or because it seems to have no chance to win. With such limited choices available, more and more people simply stop voting. In most elections only about 25% of the eligible voters support the winner — hardly a mandate for anything.

What if voters were given a clear-cut choice?

What if they could vote "yes" or "no" on big government — and know that their vote would make a difference?

What if they were offered the opportunity to give up their own subsidies in exchange for an immediate and enormous reduction in the burden of government?

Wouldn't that change the way voters react?

Yes, it would. And it can happen.

MOTIVATING THE TAXPAYERS

We'll never reduce government by even a single dollar if we try to do it one program at a time. Our only hope is to eliminate a huge chunk of government all at once — eliminate so many programs at one time that the taxpayers will receive huge savings immediately.

Only for such huge savings will people willingly give up their own privileges — only when they know the reward will be so much better than what little they'll have to give up. Only then will the great mass of taxpayer-voters be motivated to pressure Congress to make it happen. Only then will the forces for small government be united to outweigh the few people who love big government for its own sake.

What Do We Eliminate?

Which programs should make up the huge chunk of government to be eliminated?

We could argue forever about "good" government programs and "bad" ones, and we would never settle the matter. But there's already a clear dividing line — one that every office-holder in Washington has sworn to respect.

The Constitution lists the powers and functions delegated to the federal government. Among them are national defense and a federal judiciary system. The 9th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution make it clear that the federal government has no business in any matter not authorized in the Constitution itself:

IX. The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

X. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Founding Fathers knew that such things as roads, education, commerce, agriculture, health care, law enforcement, and charity would be more efficient, less expensive, and less intrusive of your liberty if handled by the states or by the people on their own.

They also knew that government will always be under pressure to grow and acquire ever more power. So the Constitution drew a practical, clear-cut boundary beyond which the federal government was not allowed to go.

They feared that if government ever broke through that boundary — even for the best of reasons — there would be no stopping it. They feared the very government we have today — the one that costs $1.8 trillion a year, the one that tramples on more and more of your rights by asserting that the government's needs are more important than yours.

The Benefits

If we eliminate all the powers and programs of the federal government that aren't "delegated to the United States by the Constitution," you will benefit in three ways:

  • The federal government once again will be held in check, limited to specific functions.

  • The federal government no longer will have the power to interfere in your life.

  • The federal government will be so small that there will be no need for a federal income tax.

For over a hundred years there was no income tax, because the federal government was contained fairly well by the Constitution. National defense and the few other authorized activities were financed by minor taxes that were only a small inconvenience to the people.

Today the federal government could get by with just the import tariffs and excise taxes that are already being collected. They are enough to finance national defense, the judiciary, and the few remaining Constitutionally authorized functions.

If we reduce government to its Constitutional limits, there will be no need for a personal income tax, estate tax, gift tax, capital gains tax, Social Security (FICA) tax, or corporate income tax. And there will be no need to replace these taxes with a flat tax or a sales tax — or to increase the other taxes the federal government collects now.

We can repeal the income tax and replace it with nothing.

Actually, that statement isn't precise. We can repeal the income tax and replace it with freedom — your freedom to keep every dollar you earn.

How much would that mean to you? Just look at the stub on your next paycheck or at your last tax return. See how much the federal government takes directly from you now in income and Social Security taxes. That's how much your take-home pay will increase immediately. If yours is a typical middle-class family, your net income should increase by $10,000 a year or more.

But the benefits go well beyond that. Federal programs no longer will run up the cost of education, health care, housing, charity, local government, or millions of products and services.

And what will you have to give up?

Every special privilege you might be getting now from the federal government — all of which you can replace on your own, probably for a fraction of what you currently pay in income tax.

So this is The Great Libertarian Offer:

Give up your favorite federal programs and you'll never pay income tax again.

Your children will pay no more federal income tax, and your grandchildren will never carry the tax burden you've had to endure. Imagine how much better their lives will be.

Questions?

I can understand if all this seems too good to be true. And it may raise questions:

  • How will society handle health care, education, law enforcement, and a multitude of other activities if the federal government doesn't run them?

  • Can a much smaller government provide the protection and security you want?

  • Can we hope to bring this about?

This book was written to answer those questions and many more.

I ran for President as a Libertarian in 1996, presenting The Great Libertarian Offer. The enormous upsurge in libertarian thinking and the growth of the libertarian movement in the past four years has inspired me to run again. And so I have announced my presidential candidacy for 2000.

I believe we can bring The Great Libertarian Offer to the attention of the American people this election year. I believe we can make an enormous start on the road to your freedom. I believe we may be within a few years of changing the course of history — reversing the long-term trend toward bigger and bigger government. I believe we can have liberty in your lifetime.

Most Americans want much smaller government. But they haven't yet seen a candidate, party, program, or plan dedicated and determined to make government much smaller. Now we have all those elements.

This book will show you how we can bring about much smaller government. It will begin with important principles that must be recognized when considering how we will return America to a land of minimum government and maximum liberty. It then will examine a number of government programs and show how much better they can be handled outside of government. And finally, it will show how we can get from where we are now to where we want to go.

Meanwhile, take heart.

If you suspect that most people really are happy with big government, just ask the next five people you encounter:

Would you give up your favorite federal programs if it meant you'd never have to pay income tax again?


[From The Great Libertarian Offer, published in 2000, available at www.HBbooks.com]