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The Size of Government - Common Sense and Nonsense

Shannon Bohrer

(Jan, 2012) A common belief today is that our government is too large, it costs too much and it should be reduced in size. This sounds good and in many instances it is probably true, but when I question people about how big our government should be and/or should not be, the answers are sometimes a little fuzzy. A very frequent response is that the government is too large, but exactly how much "too large is," is not stated. This is usually followed by a few words that some government deregulation would also be helpful, but the specifics on deregulations are often omitted. When questioned about what government should provide the list includes maintaining a military for defense, police services, adequate roads, education, social security and then a long pause…. For myself, I would not like any reductions and/or deregulations in government that would affect me and/or the services I am receiving, and/or close to receiving - like Social Security and Medicare. Apparently many public opinion polls share my perspective. That is not to say everything else should be eliminated, since I don’t even know what everything else is, which directly relates to the issue.

Conventional wisdom would say that common sense can tell us what to keep and/or what we should eliminate. However, if it were that easy then why has it not been done? Some things are easy to say but not so easy to accomplish. If you remember last month’s column we discussed common sense and much credit was given to Thomas Paine’s book Common Sense. Thomas Paine’s argument is that government is a necessary evil. As stated in his book, "Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensue it to us, with the least expense and the greatest benefit, is preferable to all others." So at least from Thomas Pain’s perspective, this is not a new problem. Of course when Thomas Paine wrote those words, the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did not exist. However, the fear then, as now, is that a large government is capable of intrusion in the citizen’s life. A very frequent topic today as it was in 1776.

If we wish to reduce the size of government, it would be prudent to know how big it is and what it does. It is my belief, for good reasons, that we have no idea how big our government is. My ignorance, and I am not alone, also includes all of the functions our government has, or does not have. The former Secretary of Defense commented about this issue when he requested an accounting of contractors working in the defense department. Secretary Gates stated that when he requested the accounting for all of the contractors working for the defense department, the Defense Department could not give him an answer, not even how many contractors they have. If we don’t know how large something is then how do we determine how much is too much? What do we reduce?

As stated earlier the government should provide essential service like our military. However, if we are to make a decision of how much military we need - we need to know how many soldiers and contractors we have and what their jobs are. Adding to this confusion I heard a talking head on a news program state that we have over 700 military bases around the world. At first I thought I did not hear the number correct, but it was then repeated. Since you can very often not believe what was on the news I went to Google.

Google was very helpful. There are more than 1,000 US military bases around the world. The most accurate count is 1,077, or, if you count differently, 1,169, or even 1,180. The reality is nobody knows for sure. Of course these numbers include the bases in our country. According to the Department of Defense’s 2010 Base Structure Report, as of 2009, the US military maintained 662 foreign sites in 38 countries around the world. But that number represents a reduction from numbers reported by DOD just a few years ago. So the number of 700 was overstated, unless you count the bases in this country. It is sad to say and sometimes shocking, but there are times when the news is just not reliable. (Of course that statement does not include this article or other articles I have written)

Another site reported that Deputy under Secretary of Defense Dorothy Robyn referenced the Pentagon’s "507 permanent installations" while testifying before the senate appropriations committee’s sub-committee on military constructions and related agencies. This occurred early last year, however the Pentagon’s 2010 Base Structure Report, lists 4,999 total sites in the US, its territories, and overseas. The numbers vary according to what sites you find and I guess it is dependent upon who’s counting and the criteria they use for a "base", if that makes sense – which it does not. Apparently there are also numerous secret bases that we don’t know about, which is logical since they are secret.

Some other interesting numbers that I found in my limited research is that we have 124 bases in Japan, and 87 in South Korea. If we examine this from the perspective of the countries that have our military bases, it works very well for them; they can have U. S. Military bases in their country to defend them and we pay the bill. This also benefits the military contractors who build, supply and maintain the bases. Who says the government can’t create jobs – by building, maintaining and servicing military bases around the world, our government has created a lot of jobs – in other countries, with which we have trade agreements. Maybe we are protecting the products they make!

Reducing the size of the government without an examination of our needs and how big the government is does not make sense. Of course not knowing how big the current government is does not make sense. Common sense would say that our leaders (the term leader may not reflect reality) should be able to tell us how large our government is and where it is. If you remember we had a large military base (probably several bases) in the Philippines. It was predicted by the experts that when we were kicked out it would be catastrophic. I am sure that did not work well, however I don’t remember the catastrophe? Before we the people demand a smaller government, maybe we should demand an accounting of the current government.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be. " Thomas Jefferson

Before congress reduces my social security, which is a program that works, I would like to see them account for the fraud, waste and abuse in the government that they have been promising to do for over 30 years. I would also like to see an accounting of what it costs us to defend the countries where we have military bases. Just for the record, I am not anti military, I took not one, but two oaths to uphold the U.S. Constitution during my career – and I took both seriously.

Read other articles by Shannon Bohrer