Montreal, April 15, 2011 • No 288


Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Carson City, Nevada.



The US Federal Budget: Political Grandstanding versus Real Advances for Freedom


by Gennady Stolyarov II


          It is becoming more apparent every day that the US federal government is in need of urgent, radical budget cuts if the American people are to avoid a downward spiral into interminable indentured servitude. Americans are about to be condemned to generations of suffering due to colossal interest on the national debt, rising taxes, and what can only be called a true crime against humanity: inflation. The shift in the fiscal discussion in Congress from unquestioned massive spending increases to serious consideration of budget cuts is a positive development. However, it leaves much to be desired in its actual conduct and implementation. Moreover, it should lead thoughtful advocates of liberty to consider what the best path toward achieving individual freedom and genuine limited government might be.


          After a federal-government shutdown was narrowly avoided on April 8, 2011, Congress appeared to reach a "bipartisan consensus"—a phenomenon always to be approached with skepticism and caution—comprised of approximately $38 billion in "cuts" to the budget proposed by President Obama. Yet, as even mainstream media sources acknowledge, these cuts are mostly sleights of hand, accounting and semantic manipulations. Most are either (i) cuts from proposed spending increases (less of an increase is still an increase), (ii) redistributions of unused funds of federal agencies or formal elimination of funds that would never be spent anyway, and (iii) applications of nonsensical federal accounting rules that, if tried in any other sector, would result in their practitioners' prompt imprisonment. Most substantive cuts that would have actually saved taxpayers money were abandoned for being too controversial. These are the measures that would have had even a remote chance of accomplishing substantive improvements. Some federal agencies, including the sinkhole for money and lives known as the Pentagon, actually received funding increases. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve continues, with no accountability, to bestow far vaster quantities of money on well-connected financial interests and even relatives of well-connected financiers. Black is white, and increases are cuts. The Party officials in Orwell's 1984 would be proud.

          Even more detestable was the game of political brinkmanship played by both sides in the buildup to the Orwellian cuts. A deal was reached a mere few hours before 800,000 federal workers, but not the members of Congress deciding their fates, would be furloughed without pay. While some of them, such as the TSA officers who routinely go beyond even their agency's invasive protocols to grope and molest innocent travelers, would have deserved it, most are simple functionaries of a vast administrative machine dominated by a small, concentrated class of rent-seeking elites and their comrades in high federal office. The workers who would have suffered most have no real power and bear little to no blame for the detestable abuses, waste, and coercion within the federal government. They were and remain mere pawns in the political elites' cynical, manipulative game. Their inability to carry out routine governmental functions, rightfully appropriated by the federal government or not, would have harmed numerous private citizens who did nothing wrong. Millions of people would have become poorer, unable to receive promised tax refunds (refunds of their own money), obtain permission for home loans to clear (and the requirement to obtain such federal permission would not have been suspended), or even visit the "public lands" for whose upkeep they have unfailingly paid their tax dollars. A federal-government shutdown would not have reduced the scope and power of the federal government in any real way. It would simply have made many Americans poorer by denying them whatever scraps of their wealth and freedom the federal government would have otherwise deigned to throw back at them.

          So, while the discussion in Congress—the public show put on by politicians to keep the public entertained and obscure the real picture—has shifted from automatic spending increases to a few "cuts" from baseline increases, this does not leave the intelligent observer with the impression that the federal political class has in any manner reformed itself. The federal political class has shown itself to be decidedly unable to enact policies to preserve the United States from a fiscal calamity and its attendant evil effects upon personal freedom and prosperity. The American federal political process is not a venue from which we can hope for any serious, long-term affirmations of human freedom and dignity. This leaves one to wonder: Where might one look to advance the future of liberty, prosperity, and Western civilization?

"There have been eras where the dominant regime so oppressed the people that even this colossal human drive was not enough to overcome the abuses. The Late Roman Empire, and particularly the Edict of Diocletian, come to mind."

          As has been the case throughout history, the only force capable of counteracting the depredations of coercive institutions has been technology. Technology, by placing the ability to reshape the world increasingly into individual hands, continues to shift the balance of power toward individuals and away from concentrated, ossified established institutions. The Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century finally ended centuries of the stranglehold known as the Ancien Regime, an alliance between absolute monarchs and their government-established churches that crushed the people underfoot. The Green Agricultural Revolution of the 1960s gave the lie to predictions of imminent overpopulation, starvation, and incessant wars over resources. The Information Revolution that accelerated in the 1980s allowed the Western world a few decades of continued high standards of living despite immense fiscal irresponsibility and institutions that have become comically labyrinthine. As additional political infringements on liberty occur, technology frees up new areas in which individuals can be free. And often, technology can keep several steps ahead of political efforts to restrain and restrict its use. Eventually, the possibilities opened by technology trigger cultural and attitudinal shifts that render previous forms of coercion no longer acceptable to new generations. Historically, this has already happened to chattel slavery and (largely) to institutionalized racial and gender-based discrimination.

          The greatest hope for the future is that technological progress will continue to accelerate; that the forces of command and control will not stifle innovators sufficiently to cause them to no longer be able to come out with improvements to the ordinary person's standard of living. As thinkers from Adam Smith onward noted, the human capacity to create value and adjust to even the most adverse of environments is remarkable. People will find and expand whatever small spheres of freedom, discretion, and creativity are available to them. But there have been eras where the dominant regime so oppressed the people that even this colossal human drive was not enough to overcome the abuses. The Late Roman Empire, and particularly the Edict of Diocletian, come to mind.

          As for achieving cuts to the federal budget, mere rhetoric and brinkmanship will not suffice. Genuinely effective political reform is not guaranteed even if the politicians' motivations are genuine and valid. For a doctor, it is not enough to want the health of the patient. Likewise, for a politician, it is not enough to want individual liberty as a goal. As we have a dire political ailment on our hands, it requires the equivalent of meticulous, step-by-step surgery in order to cure. Performing the wrong procedures, or even performing the right procedures in the wrong order, may kill the patient—the American people.

          Not all federal-government functions can reasonably be cut right away, not even many of the functions that would be considered illegitimate from the standpoint of libertarian philosophy or free-market economics. The right way to cut the federal government is the way that would not drag any innocent people down with it. For instance, unemployment benefits should not be repealed until and unless the minimum wage is repealed, or else many of the people who are unemployed because of the minimum wage will find themselves on the verge of starvation. Only after allowing these people to make a living for themselves should the federal government withdraw the life support it has given them to sustain them despite the federal government's own prohibitions imposed on their labor. Compounding the difficulty further, it would be unwise to abolish the minimum wage until the federal government can repeal all forms of corporate welfare—the massive subsidies, special privileges, and barriers to entry that artificially inflate the size and scope of the most politically connected firms and give them far more bargaining power vis-à-vis their employees than any firm could ever hope to achieve in a free market.

          At the same time, how much hope can we realistically have that today's federal political class will stumble upon even a first approximation of the path toward a limited government and a free society? This set of political doctors will sooner try to deliberately kill their patient than to gather the patience, learning, and motivation to actually cure the patient's ailment. The more viable path forward, then, is for technology to move enough of the younger generations into a brighter future that the political class will have no choice but to get inexorably pulled along and gradually be replaced by people of more enlightened disposition.