WHEN IT COMES to individual liberty, the United States has become a much better place in the 50 years since Reason magazine was born. Transformative technological advances have given Americans from all walks of life the opportunity to enjoy comforts and conveniences that only a particularly prescient futurist could have predicted. Women and minorities are unquestionably better off than they were in 1968, thanks to a largely successful though admittedly unfinished fight against discrimination. But while our ability to live as we please has been enhanced, the massive growth in the size and scope of the federal government remains a large--and growing-threat to Americans' overall well-being.
In 1968, total inflation-adjusted federal spending was $1.2 trillion (in 2018 dollars), or 19.8 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). This fiscal year, the federal government will spend an estimated $4.2 trillion, or 20.8 percent of our total economic output. More disturbingly, because the government spent more money than it collected in 45 of the past 50 years, federal debt held by the public has jumped from an inflation-adjusted $2 trillion (or 32.2 percent of GDP) in 1968 to an estimated $15.8 trillion (or 78.8 percent of GDP) thisyear. In the past decade alone, the average annual budget deficit has been almost $900 billion.
Over the decades, lawmakers from both parties have consistently found new excuses to expand the federal government's portfolio and, consequently, the country's debt. Republicans have, on occasion, talked about cutting spending, but they have virtually never followed through. And while politicians of all stripes love to make vacuous promises to eliminate "waste, fraud, and abuse," they rarely grapple with the inconvenient reality that inefficiency is inherent to government--or that merely tweaking how the money is spent cannot possibly solve the problem of how much money is spent.
ONE OF THE great myths in Washington is that policy makers have to choose between guns (military spending) and butter (domestic spending). The reality is that policy makers have chosen guns and butter, and lots of both.
Let's start with the butter.
This year, spending on health, income security, and retirement programs--the three largest being Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid--will reach an estimated [section]2.7 trillion, accounting for 64 percent of total federal spending. In 1968, the same collection of programs accounted for an...