‘Citizens’ Budget’ Points Toward a Wiser, More Frugal Government

The following article originally was published January 21 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Will we live our own lives or take directives from politicians?

Or, as Jon Caldara puts the question, “Will we as a People expect only those public goods that allow for a vibrant, growing private sector, or will we demand an ever-larger, more intrusive government on which we depend for our every need and decision?”

Caldara’s organization, the Independence Institute of Golden, recently published a “Citizens’ Budget,” a detailed guide for getting state spending back under control. (Ari has written guest articles as well as a contracted paper for the Institute.)

Raiding cash funds, violating the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights by raising “fees,” and whining for federal “stimulus” funds will no longer work, the authors of the paper point out. Instead, the legislature should “establish a sustainable trend line for balanced budgets into the future” through “realistic spending revisions with no increases in taxes or fees.”

While many citizens have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts, Colorado politicians have continued to spend more of other people’s money. The 2010-11 budget is $19.8 billion, the paper relates, up “6 percent from the previous year.” On average this “places a demand of $3,830 on every man, woman and child living in Colorado.”

The legislature’s shenanigans can no longer delay the day of reckoning, and now our elected officials must close a billion-dollar gap. How can they do that without further seizing the wealth of productive, job-creating citizens? The Citizens’ Budget offers a variety of ideas:

* For current state employees, raise the age to receive pension benefits. Change the pension plan for new state employees so that their benefits are based on the yields of their contributions.

* Phase out the state’s Old Age Pension Plan, for which “a recipient may qualify even if he or she has never paid any taxes in Colorado,” and allow other existing welfare programs to fill those needs.

* Move to a voucher or stipend program for higher education, “ending direct subsidies to state colleges and universities.” And give colleges the freedom and incentives to economize.

* In K-12 education, use tax credits to allow parents to choose alternative schools and save the state money. The added benefit is that more students would get a better education.

* “Reduce incarcerations, but only for non-violent offenders.” Violent criminals should be in prison. In our view, others usually should work off their crimes or, in cases of “victimless crimes,” not be arrested in the first place.

* Tighten eligibility requirements for Medicaid, increase enrollment fees for subsidized health plans, and introduce health savings plans to give patients an incentive to economize.

Moreover, the Citizens’ Budget recommends the broad implementation of “priority-based budgeting,” in which spending is evaluated against clearly defined goals rather than automatically increased each year.

We think the Citizens’ Budget is a good start. However, ultimately we would go much further in limiting political power.

Let’s return to fundamentals. Insofar as government protects individual rights to control one’s own property and associate with others voluntarily, government lays the foundation for free market prosperity.

When government surpasses those bounds, it forcibly transfers wealth, interferes with economic liberty, and dampens productive achievement. That is why Thomas Jefferson famously championed “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

What has become clear over the past decade of Colorado politics is that, no matter how high taxes or government spending climbs, it will never be enough for the bread takers.

The animating principle of the modern welfare state is egalitarianism, the forced equality of resources. So long as anybody earns more than anyone else, wealth should be seized from the “haves” and given to the “have nots.” The fact that the end result of the doctrine is equal misery for all causes its proponents not the least hesitation.

The fundamental thing that honest, ambitious people need to succeed is economic liberty, not “help” from politicians. Indeed, politicians routinely muck up the economy with protectionist measures that hurt competition, subsidies for special interests, labor controls that cost jobs, and financial policies that create recessions.

Then, after damaging economic opportunities and thus placing people in need, politicians take further action to make people dependent on forced wealth transfers.

In a truly free society in which opportunities abound, fewer people become poor, and the prosperous many readily and voluntarily supply their needs.

Government programs that protect individual rights, most importantly the police and courts, consume a small fraction of the state budget. Projects that genuinely may be said to benefit everybody, such as roads, add somewhat more.

Most state spending involves forcibly taking money from those who earn it in order to benefit those who don’t. A just budget would respect each person’s rights to his own earnings.