Idahoans are rightfully upset over the continuous expansion of all levels of government. Spending is out of control. Taxes are too high.
But where we go wrong is we let the folks who want bigger government present the solutions while we do nothing. Then the rest of us get to talk about how bad and upsetting the solutions are, and we demand leadership. Then we say stupid stuff.
A few years ago, a friend, bemoaning a proposed expansion of the public school system, told me, "I'm against early childhood education."
Really? Against kids learning at an early age? That seems a tad harsh.
How about this: We support early childhood education; we want it done at home and in the private sector. To be successful, those of us believing in limited government should look for, talk about and embrace solutions.
Government isn't the only entity capable of solving problems. Individuals, families and organizations are pretty good venues to solve problems, too.
Emmett Rep. Steven Thayn has written a brilliant paper that captures this sentiment about as well as anything I have seen recently. Thayn's report, distributed earlier this month, is called "Entitlements, social problems and the family: How entitlements increase social problems by undermining the family."
The premise is simple. Governments and families both provide social services. Government is different in that it has to draw money from us in order to provide services. And when government takes from the family, the family invariably suffers.
Entitlements "remove family financial resources through taxation in order to provide funds for government social programs. As higher tax rates weaken stable families, social problems become worse, and more social spending seems needed. It is an endless downward cycle that we must break in this generation by restoring the proper balance between the family and the state," Thayn writes.
Thayn goes further, challenging conservatives to stop focusing on what government shouldn't do and more on how to solve problems. "Neither liberals nor conservatives value the family as a legitimate tool to deliver social services," Thayn suggests. "What is needed is a system that takes care of people through increasing the capacity of the family to provide social services. This system would reduce taxes, strengthen families, reduce social problems and increase personal freedom."
Government exists for a reason, and not every problem can or should be solved through the family or the private sector. But the reverse is also true. Not every problem can or should be solved by the government.
In many cases, the family will do a better job, more effectively and at a lower cost. Lawmakers gravitate toward government-run solutions because they're convinced that passing laws and creating programs helps build the case for re-election.
Idaho lawmakers focus exclusively on how legislation affects the state's general fund, the well that is fed by taxpayers. Each bill contains a "fiscal impact statement" where lawmakers are required to disclose, to the best of their knowledge, whether passage of a bill will result in more tax dollars or fewer tax dollars entering the state's piggybank. But if Thayn's right, lawmakers are asking the wrong questions.
Instead, legislators need to ask what solutions have been considered that don't involve growing government; whether a solution has been considered that empowers or eases the burden on families; and if government were to grow, what impact the solution would have on individuals, families and businesses.
Answering those questions honestly — and giving families as much a chance to solve problems as government — may be the only way to turn the tide, reduce spending, lower taxes and return to the limited government that we're supposed to have.
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].