State Representative Paul Curtman chairs a Missouri House Committee entitled Downsizing State Government. This week, the chairman is conducting hearings around the state seeking testimony regarding the size, scope, and efficiency of state government. Considering the title and makeup of the Committee, not to mention the subject matter of the hearings, this portends to be a significant opportunity to improve our government. But this will be a lost opportunity unless the Committee deals with first principles.
At the first hearing this morning, held in the St. Louis County Council chambers, there were several comments made over the course of the hour hearing. Most of the comments were good, but unfortunately most where suggestions for how to improve existing programs, such as improve the food stamp program, improve Medicaid, decriminalize marijuana, or the state needs to have a better mechanism for discovering fraud. Some of the better comments came from State Senator Eric Schmitt and Representative Rick Steam. Senator Schmitt observed the legislature has an opportunity to downsize government simply by overriding the Governor’s veto on HB 253, the tax relief act passed this year by the Missouri Legislature. These comments, while good, are unfortunate because they nibble around the edges of mechanisms and distract the committee from bigger, more significant issues. While the Committee can suggest these changes, they will not be long lasting changes. Long lasting changes come from shifts in philosophy. In other words, it could get better than this.
Think of the opportunity. We have been invited into the Missouri Legislature to give our advice on the size, scope and efficiency of state government. We should not settle for the opportunity to quibble about one program or flaw in one system or making a program better. We should be much less interested in commenting on a program that benefits our own self-interest. This is an opportunity to discuss ultimate questions about the size, scope and efficiency of state government. The Committee needs to be confronted with the philosophy of government.
The best comment came for David Day. He stated that, “The state should get out of the education business, because the state is doing a terrible job at it.” This is a great statement, not because it is easy to accomplish or even possible to accomplish (because it is constitutionally mandated), but because it is hard to accomplish. It is a good comment because it asks ultimate questions about the role of government. This is the question the Committee must confront.
As I was reflecting on this hearing, I contemplated the story of Solomon dividing a baby between two competing mothers. We have all heard the old cliché “divide the baby.” In our culture, we recognize this cliché to mean that we must divide the benefit or distribute the gain in a spirit of compromise. But that is far from the original meaning of the story.
The original story is found in I Kings 3. The story goes something like this. Two women live in the same house and they have babies in close proximity to each other. One dies. The mother of the dead child exchanges her dead child for the live one while the other mother is not aware of it. They come before the king for adjudication. The story continues,
24 And the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king. 25 And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.” 27 Then the king answered and said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother.” 28 And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.
This story is not about equitably dividing anything. It is about the proper role of government. Solomon used wisdom in discerning the truth and enforced the rights of the two women based on the truth. The people rejoiced when they learned that their king was wise in discerning the truth and executing justice, not in effectively distributing property. Our leaders think it is their role to manage the economy, redistribute wealth and a whole host of other inappropriate activities in funding this project, bailing out that effort, or creating jobs. It is never justice to take property from one individual for the benefit of another individual. Confiscatory taxing of that nature is called plunder or theft.
People rejoice when they receive justice. This is the message the legislature must hear. Limiting the government to the role of executing justice will inherently reduce the size and scope and improve the efficiency of state government. Government gets smaller when it does not have to manage every citizen’s property. If the government would return to its proper role of executing justice, government would return to its proper size and the people would rejoice.