published Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Endless government

An amusing but realistic quotation attributed to President Ronald Reagan was: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."

Think, for instance, of the farm subsidies that were set up under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Depression. They were supposed to provide "temporary" relief to farmers. But now, well over half a century later, the subsidies are still in effect -- and have cost taxpayers billions of dollars during both good and bad economic times.

The longevity of government bureaucracy came to mind with a recent article about the "Sunset Law" in Tennessee. Enacted in the 1970s, the law's goal was simple and good: to prevent state government bureaucracies from becoming self-perpetuating after they had outlived their usefulness. The law requires lawmakers to reauthorize various agencies and boards, or else those bodies are dismantled.

At different times, reauthorization of agencies has been delayed while their value to the taxpayers of Tennessee has been challenged. And more than 100 agencies -- dealing with matters ranging from boxing to horse racing -- have been allowed to "sunset."

At present, nearly a dozen boards of various types are being asked to justify their importance to the state, or perhaps be ended under the Sunset Law.

Not surprisingly, there are questions about whether some lawmakers are pursuing a personal agenda against particular boards in threatening to let them sunset.

Obviously, such decisions should be based on a board's or agency's demonstrated value to Tennesseans, not on a narrow individual agenda.

But in general, the size and scope of government and its growing role in our lives strongly suggest, as Reagan believed, that bureaucracies can almost become "eternal."

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