Question 1 on the Massachusetts ballot would abolish the state income tax. If enacted it will eliminate as much as $9 billion in government revenue and force a radical downsizing of the state's budget and operations. That is exactly the purpose for which its authors designed it: to make state government small. Libertarian Party candidate Carla Howell has been the public face of Question 1, and has campaigned for it largely on the grounds that it will spur tremendous economic growth and that "small government is beautiful."
But other than Howell's, no public voice supports Question 1. It is opposed by more or less the whole of the Massachusetts establishment: by Democrat Shannon O'Brien, who warns that it "goes too far;" by Republican Mitt Romney, who labels it "too extreme;" by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (a business lobby, despite its name), which calls it "the most potentially destructive . . . initiative ever;" by the Boston Herald, which says "it would be a catastrophe;" by The Boston Globe, which dismisses it as "pernicious;" and by every elected official on Beacon Hill.
But the establishment is wrong. Massachusetts can thrive without an income tax, just as nine other states, including Florida and Washington, do. Repealing the income tax would be a revolutionary change, and revolutions are by definition unsettling. They alarm people who cannot conceive of anything but the status quo and are resisted by those with a vested interest in keeping things as they are. So naturally the establishment candidates predict disaster if Question 1 passes.
"I don't think we could possibly have schools, care for our elderly, or care for the poor if we cut our budget by more than a billion dollars," Romney said during the first five-way debate on Oct. 9. When Howell pointed out that Question 1 would increase the average taxpayer's take-home pay by $3,000, O'Brien was derisive.
"If you give someone back $3,000," she snorted, "they can't build a road. They can't build a school. Three thousand dollars is not enough money to educate your child, to send your parent to a nursing home, to make sure we build good roads and bridges. . . . All these things are supported by our government."
But that's emotion talking, not reason. Claiming that there would be no schools if the government didn't build them is as silly as claiming that there would be no homes or churches if the government didn't build them. We don't depend on the government for the food we eat, the cars we drive, or the clothes we wear. We would laugh at anyone who insisted that only the state can provide us with access to the Internet, consumer credit, daily newspapers, or dental hygiene. It is equally laughable to insist that the state is indispensable to nursing-home care for the elderly or education for the young.
Some years back, worried that its federal subsidies were about to be cut, PBS launched an ad campaign to bolster support for them. Its theme was "If PBS doesn't do it, who will?" Who will provide high-quality TV programming, that is, without government funding? The obvious answer was: The private sector will -- and does. Amid the vast wasteland of lowbrow TV are many oases, from C-SPAN to Arts & Entertainment to The Learning Channel. Good programming doesn't depend on the government. Neither do most things.
Enacting Question 1 would not wipe out state government. It would cut a $23 billion budget to $14 billion, or roughly where the budget was in 1993 -- not exactly the Dark Ages. In so doing, it would administer a badly needed rebuke to a Legislature that routinely treats the public with contempt and thinks the best answer to every question is new taxes. It would occasion a far-reaching (and long overude) debate on the state's real priorities: $14 billion will buy a lot, but it won't buy everything. It will remove $9 billion from the clammy grip of the bureaucracy and plow it back into the Bay State economy -- with spectacular results.
Romney, O'Brien, and the rest of the establishment make the PBS argument: If state government doesn't do it, who will? The answer is that we will -- and we will generally do it more efficiently, more intelligently, and more flexibly than the state.
And this is where Carla Howell is wrong. Small government isn't beautiful. What is beautiful is what small government makes possible: a flourishing civil society.
Shrink state government and a hive of creative private activity will take its place. Individuals and organizations will form what Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of a free society -- the voluntary associations that have been the wellspring of so much that is useful and humane in American life. From feeding the poor to paying for medicine to promoting the arts, countless functions that the government does badly, private societies can do well. Question 1 would give them the chance to blossom and grow, and Massachusetts would become for all of us a happier, healthier place.