Even though I found arguments that former President George W. Bush "stole" the 2000 election to be unconvincing, I was gladdened to hear people who usually hold coercive power in excessively high regard use the word "illegitimate" when referring to the head of state. I'm equally encouraged to see reports that tax revenues are drying up and that members of Congress are being greeted at home by angry protesters. Anything that erodes the cult of government is a good thing.
And tax revenues do, indeed, appear to be drying up. According to the Associated Press, the federal government is seeing its biggest decline in revenue since 1932. Overall receipts are expected to drop 18% this year -- a number that squares with Congressional Budget Office projections.
Other figures in an Associated Press analysis underscore the recession's impact: Individual income tax receipts are down 22 percent from a year ago. Corporate income taxes are down 57 percent. Social Security tax receipts could drop for only the second time since 1940, and Medicare taxes are on pace to drop for only the third time ever.
Internal Revenue Service figures (XLS) reveal that tax receipts have declined during past recessions, but to a relatively minor degree. This year's cash crunch is historically impressive..
But reviewing those IRS figures reveals more interesting information -- in particular, how much less the federal government used to cost us all within living memory. Using current dollars -- that is, figures adjusted to represent 2009 purchasing power so that we're comparing apples and apples -- it's easy to see that the assemblage of czars and apparatchiks in D.C. has become a much more expensive indulgence than in the past. In 1960, gross federal tax revenues were about $91.8 billion; in 2008, gross federal tax revenues stood at $2.7 trillion.
And yet the federal government has been so effective at finding ways to spend that extra cash that it's poised to rack up a $1.8 trillion deficit this year alone, with a total deficit of $9.1 trillion forecast for 2010-2019 (according to the Congressional Budget Office). It seems that, no matter how much the government collects, there's never enough to pay for all of the things that politicians want to do for, with or to their constituents.
You can insert the government ever-more deeply into people's lives when you keep expanding your resources by such an enormous measure, with everything that implies for the size and power of the state relative to the autonomy of the individual. Wiretaps, marijuana and immigration raids, "smart" ID cards and extensive databases don't come cheaply -- but there's been more than enough cash to pay the bills for many decades.
Of course, lots of people like the loss of liberty that comes with a government that has a seemingly endless stream of funding -- and still spends more than it takes in. But not everybody hankers after the suffocating embrace of the all-powerful state. That's why so many members of Congress are going home this month, only to run headlong into vigorous protests against proposals to expand the federal government's already enormous role in the regulation and provision of health care.
Yes, Rep. Llloyd Doggett insists that the crowd that shouted him down was a nasty "mob" dispatched by libertarians and Republicans. Well, isn't public opposition always a "mob" in the eyes of comfortable officials?
And political organizations wish they had the ability to make enthusiastic protesters show up at a whim; In reality, the best they can do is to help coordinate passion that already exists at the grassroots. Those protesters may have received a little literature and a few emails from some groups' twenty-something outreach types, but they showed up because they're ticked off.
It's too much to hope that we're seeing the end of the metastasizing state -- expansive government still has too many supporters and resources to dry up and blow away.
But we are seeing further erosion of the credibility and legitimacy of coercive institutions and officials who are discovering new resistance to their efforts to run the world.