Starve the beast

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I came to the House as a real deficit hawk, but I am no longer a deficit hawk. I'll tell you why: I had to spend the surpluses. Deficits make it easier to say no.
Rick Santorum[1][2]:16-17,24

"Starve the beast" is a political phrase of American mintage, referring to a strategy to terminate the existence of that noted right-wing bugaboo, big government. It is most closely associated with writer and political strategist Grover Norquist ("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."[3]), although it is said to have come from an anonymous Ronald Reagan staffer.[2]


The Great Society had a real chance to grow into a beautiful woman. I figured she’d be so big and beautiful that the American people couldn’t help but fall in love with her… but now Nixon has come along and everything I’ve worked for is ruined… She’s getting thinner and thinner and uglier and uglier all the time. The American people will refuse to look at her; they’ll stick her in a closet to hide her away and there she’ll die. And when she dies, I, too, will die.“
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1970[4]

The reasoning goes something like this: Cutting taxes will decrease government revenue, thus forcing similar cuts in government spending. With less money to spend, the government will be forced to shrink, thus crippling its attempts to infringe upon the rights of sovereign American citizens by such underhanded means as enforcing the law; with the government out of the way at last, a utopia will be born, just like in the good old days.

Unfortunately for this pipe-dream, it would appear that when taxes are cut, and the hated big-government policy of "tax, tax, tax; spend, spend, spend" is no longer workable, there is another policy allowing the government to get lots of money to spend, viz., "Borrow, borrow, borrow; tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow."[5] This strategy has the advantage of letting politicians have their cake and eat it too, but it also has the drawback of producing very large deficits, which the politicians hope do not have to be dealt with until after they have retired — or died of illness or old age. In short, it's not their problem. YeeHaH! (Do they have grandchildren?)


In the summer of 2001, during the first months of the George W. Bush administration, a bill was passed that slashed taxes for almost all taxpayers, but especially those in the upper tax-brackets. Proponents of Reaganism cheered this on as the start of a new era of starving the beast. Then along came 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the coverage of prescription drugs under Medicare; just as in Reagan's presidency, the national debt nearly tripled. Whoops!

A more recent example of starving the beast is the set of rules put in place in the House of Representatives by the new Republican majority, which is called "Cut-Go," short for "cut as you go." Under this policy, all new spending must be balanced by a cut in some other spending, but a tax cut does not have to be balanced by raising some other tax, because Laffer curve, duh.

Cato Institute on starving the beast[edit]

Even the Cato Institute thinks that "starving the beast" is a stupid idea; and when that noted libertarian think tank argues against some plan for tax cuts, one may immediately conclude that something is seriously wrong with said plan.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. "Leadership Lines Up With Deficit Doves" by Nichols, Hans, (2.5.03) The Hill
  2. 2.0 2.1 Starve the Beast: Origin of a Budgetary Metaphor by Bruce Bartlett (2007) 'The Independent Review 12(1):5-26.
  3. Conservative Advocate NPR's Mara Liasson reports on the career of Grover Norquist (May 25, 200112:00 AM ET) NPR.
  4. The great Society at 50 by Karen Tumulty (May 17, 2014) The Washington Post.
  5. America falling down: The United States’ infrastructure is slowly coming apart. Still, the government does not spend adequate funds to insure the ground on which Americans stand is secure. (August 8, 2007) The Minnesota Daily.
  6. Limiting Government: The Failure of "Starve the Beast" by William A. Niskanen (2006) Cato Journal 26:553-558.