Cut a Cabinet Department? You Must Be Joking

“Laws were most numerous when the state was most corrupt.” — Tacitus, The Annals III.27

Texas Gov. Rick Perry came in for much ridicule for his televised failure to remember which three federal agencies he has pledged to eliminate if elected president. More embarrassing for Mr. Perry, however, is the fact that he thinks any federal agency could be eliminated (much less three) — and that he says so with a straight face.

Such a thing is beyond the realm of possibility, and to believe otherwise is to labor under hopeless delusion. Even President Ronald Reagan, bursting with enormous personal popularity and propelled by gale-force political winds after two landslide electoral victories, was unable to cut government spending during his two terms, let alone cut an entire federal agency. In his autobiography, “An American Life,” Reagan admitted that his failure to cut federal spending was one of the “biggest disappointments” of his presidency.

Reagan’s efforts to slow government’s inexorable growth, combined with his tax and regulatory reforms, produced an astonishing economic boom: Over the course of his eight years as president, 20 million jobs were created and unemployment fell from 7.6 to 5.5 percent. Still, if Ronald Reagan, one of the most powerful and popular presidents in U.S. history, couldn’t eliminate a single cabinet department, does anyone really think Rick Perry — or any contemporary politician — could?

If we lived in a constitutional republic — that is to say, one of limited and clearly defined powers — perhaps eliminating whole swaths of government would be possible. Maybe that’s Mr. Perry and Republican primary voters’ problem: They believe, beyond all evidence, that we live in such a nation. But we don’t, and haven’t for a long time.

America was born such a creature, or at least that was the Founding Fathers’ hope for the government they brought into this world. But as the nation grew, it matured into something quite different. Especially over the past century, Americans collectively and repeatedly voted for politicians and supported policies that transmogrified the Old Republic into what could best be described as an imperial bureaucracy. Ever since the New Deal, we have effectively been living in post-republic America.

The United States Code contains about 47,000 pages of statutes, while the Code of Federal Regulations is 160,000 pages of red tape regulating virtually every aspect of our existence. This mind-numbing mountain of rules makes it virtually impossible to not be a criminal, because there are more regulations and laws than anyone can possibly know and adhere to. In fact, it is more than even the lawmakers who made this mess can know, as Rep. John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, refreshingly admitted during the 2009 health care debate.

Responding to seemingly sensible calls for members to read the health care bills before they vote on them, Mr. Conyers told a gathering at the National Press Club: “I love these members, they get up and say, ‘Read the bill.’ What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?”

Here we have a senior member of Congress telling us quite plainly that our lawmakers have no responsibility — and indeed, no ability — to understand the laws they make. But make no mistake; ignorance will be no excuse for you, should you run afoul of any comma of our Byzantine behemoth. You will obey, whether you understand the laws or not, whether the laws are intelligible or not.

Such a country is not, in any meaningful sense, free. We have not a government of laws but a government for laws — a state that exists primarily to grow itself. Corruption, not justice, is the lifeblood of such a state, as Tacitus warned us nearly 2,000 years ago.