How to hate the government while profiting from it

What should we make of those conservatives who believe, as Ronald Reagan said, that government is the problem, but who only get their sustenance at the federal nipple.

It is a paradox that so many who criticize the government rely on businesses that exist only because of government spending.

What should we call people who yearn for the government to be shrunk, while they themselves know no paymaster but the federal treasury? Self-loathing capitalists?

Many of Washington's Beltway bandits are firmly in this camp. They talk down every federal department or agency — except the one that sustains them.

One acquaintance of mine — a hypocritical government contractor — is a devotee of Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pressure group, Americans for Tax Reform. Yet this contractor sells a service to the government, a service that he has been unable to sell to the private sector, although he has tried.

Another friend, a defense contractor, rails against the size of government every time I see him. But he also wants the government to build three more submarines which, he says, are needed to fight terrorism. To him, welfare, Medicare, foreign aid and non-defense research are luxuries we cannot afford.

There's the rub. Whose programs get the ax? Somebody else's, of course.

Yet the government is indefensible. It is overmanned, inept, and largely beyond the reach of any kind of employee discipline.

If you have been a journalist covering the government for as many years as I have, 46, you will have witnessed buck-passing, ineptitude, sloth, stupidity and wastefulness on a grand scale. You also will have known departments that function well, like the Social Security Administration. And across the whole bureaucracy there are also dedicated, hard workers, from gardeners to program managers.

I would rather the conservatives seek to reform the government than starve it selectively.

Grover Norquist told me once that because you could not stop the growth of government politically, he and his allies were seeking to do so by cutting the amount of money available to it, an idea known as ”starve the beast.”

Well, the money ran out under President George W. Bush with tax cuts and two wars. But the beast prospered.

Ditto in the time of President Obama. The beast has been impervious to starvation.

Subsequently, Norquist and others shifted their message to deal with the new reality. Now the message is that tax is crippling the economy and small business.

This reasoning flies in the face of economic history. Some of the periods of the most vigorous growth have coincided with high tax rates, especially when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

Those who believe that small business is walloped by taxation don't know too much about small business. The IRS is a lot kinder to small-business proprietors than it is to wage-earners.

The tax code favors business, including small, unincorporated proprietorships, or those filing under what is known as Subchapter S. This is a provision in the tax code that allows a single-proprietor establishment to file as an individual with all the tax allowances and deductions of a corporation. It's a sweet deal.

Tax-phobia is now a conservative value. It wasn't always so.

In the 1970s I remember having lunch with an exciting new conservative columnist, George Will, and rising young Republican star from Mississippi, Trent Lott. We were all in Houston to give speeches.

At that lunch I ventured the opinion that we were an under-taxed country, considering what we demanded of the federal government. Will and Lott heartily agreed with me. There was no argument.

Many in the new Congress will be committed to shrinking government. This will hold until they have to contemplate closing a base in their district, canceling a federal program at a local university, or removing a subsidy from a preferred project. Then politics really becomes local.

Meanwhile, those who have made good livings from the federal government while urging shrinkage are taking no chances. They are courting the

Pentagon, the one department conservatives won't cut.

The Defense Department is being offered an astounding array of goods and services, from green energy projects to continuing education, from small nuclear power plants to pioneering medical technologies.

”It's the only game in town,” one of my Beltway bandits, a government-hating, government supplier said. He didn't want to be quoted.

Contact King, executive producer and host of ”White House Chronicle” on PBS, at lking@kingpublishing.com.