By Cameron Smith
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the protagonist is charged with destroying a ring of immense power. Throughout the novel, characters with the best and worst of intentions strive to possess and thereby control the power of the ring. The more they use that power, the more warped and twisted they become.
While The Lord of the Rings has made its way onto summer reading lists for generations, this work of fiction bears a strong resemblance to what Americans have come to expect of their federal and state governments.
The power of government is unparalleled in America. Combined state and federal government expenditures account for 35.4% of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Government’s spending influence is augmented by expansive regulation and social mandates.
In their zeal to wield such power, even for the noblest of ends, many American politicians have expanded government’s reach even further. Because the cost of securing control of government grows proportionally to government’s size, politicians who possess the power of government face the temptation to use it in a manner to perpetuate that control.
According to a recent Rasmussen report, almost 40% of Americans believe that the United States engages in crony capitalism where business success depends largely on favorable treatment from the government. Businesses benefitting from such practices have strong incentives to support “friendly” politicians when they come up for reelection. When the government’s role in the economy and society is reduced, so are the opportunities for cronyism.
But the struggle to reduce government’s role has been largely abandoned. The most aggressive political ideas for curtailing the size of government in Washington suggest “controlling” spending at about 18% of GDP. According to a Real Clear Markets article by Dean Kalahar, “for the first 130 years of [America’s] existence, federal spending as a percentage of GDP averaged around 2.5%.”
Instead of reining in government, political characters continue to wrangle over the “correct” way to swing the cudgel of American government.
America’s founding fathers recognized the appeal of expansive government power and the dangers associated with it. As a result, they instituted constitutional limits on the accumulation of that power. But they also knew the system would only succeed so long as it had the consent and active support of the people it governed. When asked at the close of the Constitutional Convention what the founding fathers had produced, Benjamin Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it!”
Regrettably, Americans have not kept the Republic because they have failed to demand America’s founding principle of limited government be maintained. Unless America elects men and women willing to set aside the ring of government power and enforce the Constitution, government will be, as Barry Goldwater noted, a “monolith of power…bounded only by the will of those who sit in high places.”
Tolkien probably could not have said it any better.
Cameron Smith is General Counsel and Policy Director for the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.