State Spending Limits are Consistent with Good Government

December 18, 2009

Our friend David Brunori writes that Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is “moving right” for not raising taxes and advocating a state spending limit. Brunori argues that Pawlenty should offer budget cut ideas if he’s not going to raise taxes, and I can’t argue with him there. But Brunori also argues that spending caps are “anti-democratic” for “tak[ing] the decision making for tax and spending policies out of the hands of the people and their representatives.”

I disagree, for two reasons. First, spending caps like TABOR allow for voter approval of spending or borrowing beyond the prescribed limit, so if the popular desire is for additional spending beyond inflation and population growth, it’ll happen. It won’t happen if the spending isn’t really needed and is driven by special interests that have captured the will of legislators but not the people.

Such a problem of “concentrated benefits/diffused costs” is a big driver of state spending growth; not every dime of state spending is for educating kids, paying cops, or maintaining roads. (In fact, most new spending goes either for increasing government worker salaries or pensions, or for shiny new buildings or projects. Maintaining infrastructure gets the short stick no matter what.)

Second is that anything in a constitution is “anti-democratic” in that it ropes off an area of public policy from voters changing it. No majority can repeal such constitutional guarantees, whether they are freedom of speech, the right to vote, or a spending limit that ensures fiscal solvency and economic growth. I of course like democracy, but constitutional guarantees are what really make our country freer than most.

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