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Donald Trump’s Budget Raises a Question of the Ages: What Should Government Do (and Not Do)? (Forbes.com) March 8, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

With Donald Trump busy tweeting about everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on “The Celebrity Apprentice” to whether President Obama tapped his telephones, it may be difficult to imagine that he is deeply engaged in any important questions of political philosophy.  But, alas, there is at least one:  the age-old question of what government should do and not do.

This is precisely the deeper question underlying Trump’s first budget proposal.  Essentially he is planning a large $54 billion increase (or nearly 10%) in discretionary defense spending.  And, in order to pay for it, his budget will correspondingly reduce foreign aid, environmental protection, and federal subsidies of the arts, research, etc.

Whether you agree with his budget or not, there is a classic philosophical and constitutional underpinning for it.   Simply put, national defense is the number one priority of a federal government.   Starting with the preamble to the Constitution, one of the primary purposes of our federal government is to “provide for the common defense.”  Further, when Article I Section 8 of the Constitution lists specific powers of the federal government, several of those deal with national defense (declare war, provide for a navy, etc.).  Article II makes the president our “commander in chief,” again underscoring the priority of defense.  Later the Constitution requires the federal government to protect the states from invasion, and prohibits the states from engaging in war.

After that, the federal government’s role is debatable.  And let’s face it, there has been a steady growth of government spending, such that it now takes as much as 38% of gross domestic product.  Every president comes into office seeking to add something to federal power and spending, most recently President George W. Bush funding prescription drugs for seniors and a greatly expanded federal role in education.  And President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, Obamacare, again federalized something that once belonged to the states:  health and welfare, at great expense.

Milton Friedman, arguably the greatest economist of the twentieth century, put it this way: “Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defense of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government– in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost comes in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom.”   That is the debate President Trump’s budget proposals should prompt.

The other key principle underlying the Trump budget is how to pay for the increase in defense spending.  The history of the modern era has been one of simply funding greater government spending by transferring the tab to future generations via the national debt, which now stands at a record-setting $13 trillion.  But apparently Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, are determined to include budget cuts to help pay for the defense increase.  The EPA may cut 20% of staff and eliminate dozens of programs.  Commerce may see its budget reduced by 18%, including large cuts for research and climate science.  There is talk of eliminating the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts, as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports PBS and NPR.

To some, all these proposed cuts in domestic federal spending mean the sky is falling.  But in reality, these are legitimate philosophical questions raised by the Trump budget.  Should the federal government be in the business of funding the arts, humanities and public broadcasting?  Is it more important to give extensive foreign aid over restoring our national defense?   Let the debate begin.


To read the column at Forbes.com:


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