How We Can Downsize D.C.

by Harry Browne

May 5, 2003                

The American Liberty Foundation is beginning a project to repeal the income tax and dramatically downsize the federal government.

There are three key reasons I want to support this project in every way possible.

1. The Classic Issue

First, it’s the ideal libertarian issue. This one goes straight to the heart of libertarian ideology:

Not only is the government taking your money, it uses your own money to destroy your health-care system, your children’s schools, and our society.

It opens the door to all the principal truths about government:

  • Government programs never produce the results promised for them.

  • Government programs usually hurt the very people they’re supposed to help.

  • Government programs never operate the way you thought they would be run.

  • Government uses legitimate social concerns to allow politicians to reward their friends and punish their enemies.

  • Government programs give politicians the power to run your life the way they want to run it, not the way you want to live.

  • Forcing people to do something almost always leads to unintended consequences and bad results.

If you persuade someone that gun laws promote crime, or that the Drug War is a disaster, or that the Iraqi war was a terrible mistake, or that the Clinton health-care program was a big boondoggle, you’ve gained a convert on one issue but only one issue. Most people can’t generalize from one issue to a universal principle.

But when you’ve persuaded someone that we need to repeal the income tax and reduce government accordingly, you’ve gained a new libertarian. And this new libertarian is much more likely to see that a new gun law, the Drug War, a foreign war, a new health-care bill, or any other political proposal goes against what he’s come to believe that we should be moving toward smaller government, not more government programs. He’ll know that the latest political proposal won’t achieve what it promises and, in fact, will undoubtedly make things worse.

In other words, everyone we bring to our side on this issue will most likely be on our side on almost all issues.

That doesn’t mean I think libertarians should give up working on other issues. But everything we do to promote the Downsize D.C. concept will help all libertarian issues.

2. The Easiest Issue

Second, in 45 years of promoting libertarian ideas, I’ve found that this issue is by far the easiest to sell.

You and I both know that ending the Drug War would make America a much more peaceful country with much less government snooping. We know that repealing the gun laws would make America safer by reducing violent crime. And we know that government regulation reduces our incomes and increases the prices of products we buy.

But the average person finds concepts like these difficult to accept at first glance. You have to lay a good deal of groundwork to demonstrate the bad consequences that flow from programs that are supposed to produce good results.

But repealing all forms of federal income tax means an immediate gain to the average family of around $10,000 a year. That’s something anyone can understand without a long dissertation.

It’s easy for someone to believe his child needs that student loan, or that his parents would be adrift without Medicare. You could spend a good deal of time trying to explain either issue showing that these programs make the country worse off.

But it doesn’t take any time at all to ask the simple question:

"Would you give up your favorite federal programs if it meant you’d never have to pay income tax again?"

Suddenly everything’s in focus. That piddling subsidy the person has been cherishing no longer looks so valuable. Suddenly he realizes how much he’s giving to the government in return for a tiny bribe.

Now you have his attention. From there it’s much easier to talk to him about any related issue.

For more on the power of this issue, click here.

3. All Gains Are Good

The third important benefit of this issue is that it goes right to the heart of libertarian thinking so that every gain is valuable.

This isn’t an all-or-nothing matter. If in five years we haven’t succeeded in repealing the income tax, we won’t have wasted our time because we’ll have transformed thousands of people into libertarians. And those people will be helping us by recruiting more libertarians and by spreading the word on this and other libertarian issues.

But we shouldn’t approach this with the idea that this is just a symbolic issue that we can’t actually repeal the income tax.

Again, this is the most powerful issue to sell. So even with the odds against us, we shouldn’t be surprised if we do succeed.

The 2002 Massachusetts initiative to repeal the state income tax got no help from the state’s media. No major newspaper reported on the campaign. Every politician who acknowledged the initiative’s existence came out against it. Every newspaper that took a stand opposed it. Every public figure and organization that deigned to mention it came out against it.

Still the initiative won 45% of the vote without any lengthy arguments in favor of it.

Think what we can do when people get a chance to see how much they’ll gain in cash in their pockets and how much better their health-care system, their schools, their charities, their companies, their employment, and their lives will be with a much smaller government.

Think how nice it will be when you have a CD you can give that hard-to-convince friend to play in his car on the way to work a CD acquainting him with the personal benefits to him of a truly free country.

Think of the response when we run radio ads asking people whether they’d give up their favorite federal programs in exchange for never paying income tax again and freeing their children and grandchildren from the income tax.

This Is our Issue

You may not be aware of it, but most people are sick to death of big government.

They generally aren’t going to vote against it, however. For one reason, most of them aren’t aware of any direct way to vote against big government. So they try to decide which of the two major parties is causing the least harm. And the people most vehemently fed up with government may not be voting at all.

Newspapers and TV commentators have no motivation to explore or acknowledge the strong anti-government sentiment.

But it’s there. During my presidential campaigns, I asked taxi drivers, hotel clerks, salespeople, bellmen, strangers on airplanes whether they thought government was too big, too small, or just about the right size. Over 90% of the answers were an emphatic "Way too big!"

I asked people whether they’d give up their favorite federal programs if it meant they’d never have to pay income tax again. The most popular answer I received was, "What favorite federal programs? I don’t have any favorite government programs."

It’s up to us to give these people hope and inspiration and to give substance to their latent feelings by showing them how much better off they’d be if we could reduce government dramatically.

The easiest way to do that is to ask them how they’d use a $10,000 raise in take-home pay. To put their children in private schools? Start a business? Buy a better home? Support a favorite church, charity, or cause?

This is our issue. And now the American Liberty Foundation is putting together a package of persuasive radio ads, an audio program, and a website tools you can use to convert the people who don’t respond to philosophical arguments or intellectual dissertations.

I hope you’ll help make this happen. You can find out more by clicking here.


Harry Browne was the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, and is now the Director of Public Policy for the American Liberty Foundation. You can read more of his articles at