By Tyler Watts
The United States is in a constitutional crisis, with a national government that will not and cannot control its growth. A single indicator tells the story: In the 68 years since the end of World War II, federal spending has exceeded revenue in 56 of those years. More importantly, the average size of federal deficits has ballooned from less than 1 percent of GDP in the 1950s and 1960s to over 5 percent of GDP today. Young Americans and coming generations will be left with a fiscal burden that will not be resolved without serious economic pain.
My school of economic thought, public choice, exposes problems inherent in politics that might make any attempt at reform seem daunting. We must face the fact, nonetheless, that the most common reform strategy, that of replacing our current set of leaders, is indeed hopeless. Reform should therefore not focus on particular personalities, but on changing the incentives and constraints within which these political animals operate.
Fortunately, we have a vehicle to do just that: the Article V convention process. The most important aspect of this reform is that it is state-led — it is a means by which the state governments can impose reform on Washington, D.C.
Indiana has been among the leaders on this issue, being one of 23 states to have issued a limited (i.e. single-issue) call for an Article V convention for proposing amendments in our state assembly.
To begin this discussion, we should note that the burden imposed on the states by the federal bureaucracy and regulation has never been greater, and this federal interference has created distrust and disillusionment with the feds amongst state governments. In addition to being compelled to administer much of Congress’ welfare-distribution schemes, the states have been micromanaged by federal bureaucracies in everything from land and resource use to drinking ages to voting procedures.
Next, we should note that the last two election cycles have brought nearly unprecedented turnover in the membership of state legislatures. There has never been more “inexperience” (read not political elites) in the state legislatures.
This massive turnover in state assemblies arguably brings them more in line with public sentiment as opposed to interest-group sentiment, reduces the influence of the political elites and makes the state governments more amenable to imposing constitutional reform on Congress.
State governments, although subject to much localized graft, corruption and incompetence, are inherently more responsible than the federal government, if for no other reason than they face real budget constraints: i.e. they cannot borrow and spend indefinitely through the agency of a complicit, money-printing central bank, such as can Congress.
Moreover, although the magnitude of such effects is a matter of much debate in the economics literature, every state faces competition from every other state for basic government services and its overall tax and regulatory climate.
Citizens and businesses who are fed up with high state taxes or stifling state bureaucracy may migrate to a state more to their liking at comparatively low costs and remain within the world’s largest economy, free trade zone and currency union — the United States. Perhaps this is why more than 40 states have some form of legal balanced budget requirement, with 33 of those enshrining that requirement in their state constitutions rather than individual statutes.
In summary, there is a unique window of opportunity open to Indiana in particular. The time is opportune. While public disenchantment with Congress and the federal government will likely remain at the current nadir if not fall further, the shakeup of state legislatures may not persist as activists tire and party machine politics reasserts itself. Furthermore, many astute, intelligent leaders in the fields of law and politics have begun laying the groundwork to prepare for the fruition of the Article V or “Fiver” movement.
Even as we acknowledge the seriousness of an Article V convention, let us grasp that handle of reform, pull hard and strive to bring about a deep and lasting renewal of the governing principles that have served us so well and for so long.
Tyler Watts, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and director of the Free Market Institute at East Texas Baptist University. A graduate of Hillsdale College, he earned his doctorate from George Mason University.