A dedicated libertarian, William Niskanen was also a dedicated pot-stirrer. For him the two vocations—pressing the case for small government and, at least intellectually, making trouble—were inseparable. He was best known as an original member of Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, one of a principled band of Reaganites who followed their man into the White House and then drifted away as Reagan succumbed to political compromise and ideological deviationism. For the rest of his professional life (he died last year) he worked as chairman of the Cato Institute, the country’s sanest libertarian institution.
Beginning in 2002, Niskanen published a series of papers and op-eds about tax cuts and spending increases that turned conventional conservative wisdom on its head. Since both taxes and spending are much in the news, his critique is worth another visit.
If we wanted a smaller government, he said, we would have to raise taxes.
Most people who work in politics and government in Washington have heard the phrase “starve the beast”; many normal people are familiar with it too. According to the historian Bruce Bartlett, a former Republican aide and now a bestselling author, the phrase was first publicly applied to tax and spending matters in 1985.