“I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
- Grover Norquist
"Starve the beast" is a term attributed to United States President Ronald Reagan's budget director David Stockman, describing a strategy of forcing spending cuts and a general reduction in the size and scope of government by reducing revenue through tax cuts. This philosophy has gained favor among many but by no means all American conservative thinkers since the 1980s, most prominently the lobbyist, tax activist, and well-connected Republican supporter Grover Norquist, under whose influence the administration of President George W. Bush appears to have taken some steps towards putting the theory into practice.
The reasoning behind a strategy of starving the beast originates in the great contradiction of politics, known since antiquity, that citizens typically favor both low taxes and extensive government-provided services. Of course, these two desires are for the most part incompatible barring a system of forced labor, external income from tribute or conquest, or some other manner of hiding costs. The modern welfare state common among major western democracies since the 20th century has achieved a position which, viewed in historical context, is relatively heavy on both taxes and services. This position does not enjoy universal support, however, and many oppose this big government on the grounds that it is immoral, inefficient, unsustainable, injurious or threatening to liberty, or otherwise undesirable. The challenge for adherents of such positions is then to reduce taxes and services to a level they consider safe or acceptable.
Reducing taxes is usually an easy sell to the citizen-voters of these nations, but cutting services is a more difficult proposition to pitch. In the face of such a dilemma, things tend to remain at a status quo - a majority of voters may have spent their entire lives under a big government system and consider it normal, unavoidable, or even necessary to a just society. Older voters, who have already paid these taxes for several decades and who tend to consume a high proportion of government benefits in the form of retirement benefits and subsidized medical care, may see little benefit to themselves of changing the equation. The "starve the beast" strategy aims to overcome this inertia by changing the status quo - establish a regime of low taxes, and accustom voters to this system as a normal, rightful, and desirable aspect of government.
If not coupled directly with spending cuts, tax cuts will produce or exacerbate a deficit between spending and revenue. Modern states may be able to maintain this state of affairs for a considerable period of time, by borrowing heavily or printing additional money, but both these strategies can create undesirable economic effects, and few believe such a posture will be indefinitely sustainable. At some point, taxes will have to be re-raised, or services cut. The "starve the beast" strategy would rely for its success on the chance that by this point, low taxes will have become firmly enough engrained into the national consciousness that, when coupled with the resistance that usually greets any attempt to raise taxes, further increases will be politically untenable. Simultaneously, the deficit by this point would force legislators to turn to the other alternative, one they could be expected to consider under no other circumstances, that of cutting services. The sheer size of the deficit would then provide the impetus to overcome resistance against cuts in previously sacrosanct programs, principally entitlement spending which otherwise automatically increases in cost each year according to previously established formulas.
The immediately apparent flaw would be that politicians and voters might be tempted to raise revenues and sustain spending by reinstituting or further increasing taxes on a minority of citizens or corporations, likely the most wealthy, who in modern welfare states already pay higher-than-average taxes even when considered in proportion to their incomes. Beast-starving theorists have proposed to attempt to short-circuit any possible class warfare by creating a broad constituency against taxes by flattening tax rates, reducing the number and gradation of tax brackets, and generally equalizing tax distribution. In this light, the "tax cuts for the rich" loudly and frequently denounced by liberals can be seen as part of a broader political strategy by giving lower-income citizens, who traditionally consume more in government services than they pay in taxes and who would be considered the "richest" targets for a "tax the rich" appeal, an interest in keeping overall tax rates low and a sense of outrage about high taxes and high spending previously only common among the aforementioned heavily-taxed wealthy. It is unclear if this part of the strategy will be politically feasible as it stands - The Wall Street Journal editorial page put forth similar ideas in early 2003 with its "lucky duckies" essays, which met with a reaction ranging from general disinterest to moderate outrage. This aspect of the plan may have to be retooled before it can be expected to meet with success in the political arena.
It is worthwhile to distinguish the "starve the beast" philosophy from another conservative line of thought that supports tax cuts, that of "supply-side" tax theory, which argues that the reduction of tax rates will tend to spur economic growth, in so doing creating additional wealth. This wealth, even when taxed at the new, lower rate, would then lead to increased government revenues and reduced budget deficits. While some would-be state-starvers do argue that tax cuts will induce growth, they neither forsee nor desire additional government revenues or lower deficits, which would run counter to their overall strategy. Some commentators, such as liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, have gone so far as to allege that many nominal supply-side advocates are using the position as a stalking horse for beast-starving. Supply-side-inspired tax cuts are best considered as a matter of policy - "What is the best way for the state to proceed?" - while "starve the beast" adherents act on the basis of political philosophy - "What form should the state take?"