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And my complaint is with Republicans and Democrats who constantly tinker with the federal tax code. Two years ago, Congress increased marginal income-tax rates for wealthy Americans and subjected a larger proportion of Social Security benefits to taxation. Earlier this month the House has voted to repeal some of those tax increases, grant $500 tax credits to families with children, and let persons take money out of Individual Retirement Accounts to buy homes and pay some medical expenses.
Don't get me wrong: I believe people should keep what they earn. Your income belongs to you, not the government. But as Milton Friedman will point out in an interview in the June issue of Reason, this constant churning in the tax code mainly enriches accountants, tax lawyers, and lobbyists, and discourages investors and entrepreneurs from making long-term plans with their money. And by expending political capital on piddling tax revisions this year, Republicans may jeopardize their opportunity to indeed overhaul or replace the Internal Revenue Code next year.
I really don't know how to exorcise these Washington demons. Many libertarians and conservatives have enthusiastically embraced term limits as a procedural method of reducing government. By requiring regular "new blood" in Congress, supporters say term limits will prevent legislative fiefdoms from forming.
I'm neither an advocate nor an opponent of term limits: I'm a federalist. If citizens, through the initiative process or their legislatures, wish to limit the length of time elected officials can serve in a given office, go for it. But I've yet to hear a convincing, principled argument that a certain limit on a office-holder's tenure--whether it's six, eight, or twelve years- would magically transform legislators into libertarians. After all, I have a tough time believing that, even with term limits, you'll get libertarian-leaning legislators elected in Macomb County, Michigan, home of the legendary Reagan Democrats, in rural Arkansas, or in the Westside of Los Angeles, where Reason's editors live. Reason's congressman, at it were, is Henry Waxman, who may be the EPA and FDA's best friend on Capitol Hill. As Virginia Postrel says, having Henry Waxman as your congressman is arguably an example of taxation without representation. Term limits would force particularly obnoxious statists like Waxman to retire. But they are no substitute for winning the hearts and minds of people across the country. The newest members of Congress have tended to be more intensely ideological--both pro- and anti-government--than more senior representatives. Some of you may have kept up with the coverage of the 73 feisty freshman House Republicans. Fewer journalists, however, have noted that the Democrats elected from the majority black and majority Hispanic districts that resulted from the 1990 redistricting have been perhaps more vocal advocates of income redistribution and stifling regulations than the most ossified Democratic congressional barons. It's something to consider.
So what can libertarians do? I hope I've made it pretty clear that you shouldn't look for help from Washington. Outside the Beltway, however, things are looking up. The overwhelming, nearly veto-proof margins with which the regulatory reforms in the Contract With America passed the House of Representatives confirms something Reason readers have known for some time: Everyday Americans are fed up with the petty intrusions government regulators routinely impose on us. From complying with wetlands laws to filing your income taxes to providing "reasonable accomodation" for persons under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the message is clear: We want our lives back.
Homeowners, taxpayers, and entrepreneurs--in other words, most Americans--may be sympathetic to our message. Appealing to that audience, however, may require libertarians to restrain a tendency that often afflicts all of us, including me. We are often accused of being utopians. We always deny it. But our actions speak louder than our protests, because libertarians tend to make perfection the enemy of "good enough." Consider an issue that's important to many of us: the drug war. We often advocate absolute drug legalization--an end state. There are, however, a lot of people who will admit that prohibition has been excessive but can't stomach immediate, thoroughgoing legalization.
A real-world example of such a potential fellow-traveler is Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde, who's now chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Henry Hyde takes a back seat to no one in his advocacy of tough criminal penalties for drug use and drug dealing. But he has become a principled critic of asset forfeiture--the law-enforcement practice of seizing the property of persons who are merely suspected of dealing or using drugs. Congressman Hyde's outrage at the erosion of property rights and due process caused by civil forfeiture makes him an unlikely, but valuable, ally on this issue. Indeed, the Cato Institute wisely decided to publish a book Hyde wrote on civil forfeiture. It would have been easy for Cato take a purely principled position and refuse to build bridges with Mr. Hyde because he doesn't advocate overturning all the drug laws tomorrow. By instead welcoming Henry Hyde into the fold, he may give us a more sympathetic listening on other issues. And, as one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill, having Hyde's support can advance our agenda.
Instead of reflexively burning bridges when people refuse to agree with us completely, let me suggest a counter-strategy, which is summed up by a phrase I've heard some friends in the free-market community use: "Rome was not burned in a day." It's taken a half-century to build up the current regulatory state. It will take more than one election or one session of Congress to replace it--if that's what the American people want. It's our job to convince individuals, one a time, that their lives will be better if we cut taxes, eliminate government programs, reduce regulations, and--don't forget--expect them to take more control over their own lives.
More than the principles (or lack of them) held by the new congressional leaders, I'm encouraged with the development of what I refer to as "cyberdemocracy" in the April issue of Reason--the use of talk shows, e-mail, and broadcast faxes to bypass traditional information outlets. To date, information-age politics has been dominated by people who want to tear down the regulatory state, and who show more allegiance to ideas than party labels. Perhaps cyberdemocracy can cause the Beltway Empire to crash under its own weight. Until that happens, keep your powder dry.