Officials at the National Science Foundation may rue the day they approved studies of Polish bisexual frogs and migrating bats in Morocco. The studies—made at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to the taxpayer—drew scorn from across the country when they were publicized two years ago. Angry taxpayers flooded Congress with demands for an explanation of these and dozens of other equally ludicrous uses of government money.
Behind the uproar was Jim Davidson, one of the youngest and most successful opponents of wasteful spending in Washington today. Davidson, the founder and executive director of the 32,000-member National Taxpayers Union, has become a force to reckon with on Capitol Hill. His 20 full and part-time employees regularly embarrass big spenders by researching and disseminating news of dubious tax-funded programs. More importantly, the organization has played a key role in killing legislation that would have added tens of billions of dollars to the annual tax bill.
"You are the most necessary lobby we have," Senator William Roth told the group after it helped defeat such programs as the Family Assistance Program and the Supersonic Transport. Senator Harry F. Byrd praises the organization's "thoughtful analyses of governmental policy," which he sees as "immensely helpful" to Congress. Even opponents concede the effectiveness of the taxpayers union. After NTU spent $50,000 on a successful advertising campaign against the one percent "add-on" to Federal pensions above cost of living increases, the Association of Retired Federal Employees placed the blame for the repeal this summer squarely with the National Taxpayers Union. By some estimates, the repeal will save taxpayers about $300 billion over the next 25 years which would have otherwise gone to retired bureaucrats and Congressmen.
Davidson sees his group as being in the right place at the right time. When he started NTU in 1969, a fiscal awareness had yet to spread widely among the American public. But the virtual bankruptcy of New York City, record Federal budget deficits, and soaring taxes have rendered voters ripe for the message of the organization. "The taxpayer issue is the big issue of the next generation," Davidson says. "More and more people are aware that they are being bamboozled."
In the fight for fiscal responsibility, the taxpayers union attacks defense and social boondoggles with equal zeal. NTU's annual ratings of Congressmen invariably give highest marks to senators such as William Proxmire and William Roth, who shield no part of the Federal budget from critical scrutiny. Government employees angered by waste and incompetence have proven of great value in the organization's efforts to cut spending. For many years, in fact, the chairman of NTU was A. Ernest Fitzgerald, the Pentagon cost analyst fired for his revelations of a $2.5 billion overrun in the C-5A program. A recent addition to the board of advisors of the taxpayers union is Robert Myers, former chief actuary of the Social Security system, who believes the program is headed for bankruptcy.
As a result of its consistent stand against waste in all areas of the budget, the National Taxpayers Union has escaped being stereotyped as either liberal or conservative. Indeed, those who detect traces of a Rothbardian antipathy to the warfare/welfare state in the organization are not far off. Rothbard serves as co-chairman of NTU with Libertarian Review publisher Robert Kephart.
Davidson disclaims public allegiance to any ideology. As a high school student, he considered himself a liberal and cheerfully participated in "Model United Nations" activities. In college, however, he found free market and libertarian thinkers to be far more compatible with his basic values. When he graduated from the University of Maryland in 1969, Davidson decided that taxpayers needed an effective voice in the capital. The result, at the end of the first year, was an organization running on a shoe-string budget and boasting about 70 members.
The National Taxpayers Union has been on an exponential growth curve ever since. In the process, the 29-year- old Davidson has begun to make a personal imprint. He has already appeared on the Johnny Carson show several times to describe inane uses of government money. During the past two years, almost a dozen major articles by Davidson have appeared in such publications as Playboy, the Washington Post, Penthouse, and Playgirl. (His interview with Rothbard appears in the October Penthouse).
Despite his active political life, Davidson makes time for other pursuits. He relaxes by sailing, playing chess, painting, running, and tending to a nine-foot-wide rubber tree named Goodrich which threatens to engulf the antique furniture in his living room. Much of last summer was spent driving across the United States for pleasure—and business. The trip took Davidson to some intriguing places, including the town of Slumgullion, Colorado, in which a prospector named Alfred Packer once ate five registered Democrats. This exploit—and many others—will be recounted by Davidson in a forthcoming book called The Eccentric's Guide to America, which will be offered next year by a major paperback publisher.
Although he holds two masters degrees and a B.A. from the University of Maryland, Davidson has plans to soon add another degree—and to write a serious book. Oxford University recently admitted him for studies in political philosophy, which he hopes to use in preparation for a major work about the distortion of flows of information around political issues. This book will attempt to illuminate structural biases in the political system that work to the advantage of special interest groups.
Some day in the future, Davidson hopes to get out of politics entirely. He envisages writing plays and poetry, or perhaps teaching English literature, a field in which he holds a graduate degree. But for now, the political struggle remains pre-eminent. "I think libertarians are crazy if they don't get involved in the taxpayer movement," Davidson says. "If libertarians don't, there is an ample supply of demagogues and leftists who will use taxpayers' grievances to give them more of the same."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Jim Davidson".