One of the most encouraging trends of the last few months has been conservatives finally admitting what most of us have always known: The “starve the beast” strategy—the idea that the best way to shrink the size of the federal government is to continually keep taxes low—doesn’t work. It never has:
Under Reagan, spending rose 22 percent (adjusted for inflation) and the government debt tripled. But Republicans have stuck to the strategy ever since.
When they began, this approach seemed worth a try. But 30 years later, confirmation is hard to find. Like Reagan, George W. Bush reduced income tax rates. In spite of that, inflation-adjusted federal outlays this year are 60 percent higher than they were the year Bush became president.
Advocates could write off this experience as a fluke or claim that without tax cuts, Big Government would be Ginormous Government. But new studies from economists at opposite ends of the political spectrum leave little doubt that even on half-rations, the beast never fails to feast.
The first documentation of this phenomenon came from the most unlikely source — William Niskanen, who chaired the president’s Council of Economic Advisers under … Reagan. In 2006, he examined the evidence and mournfully admitted that “starve the beast just does not work.”.
No doubt there will still be some magical realist-style conservatives who will scoff at the empirical evidence and argue that we just haven’t given the strategy enough time. After all, we’ve only been trying it for thirty years and the federal government has been around since 1790.