Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sunset Laws - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3
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Sunset Laws - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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“The False Dawn of the Sunset Laws.” Public Interest 49 (Fall 1977): 103–118.
Washington's “latest fad,” the so-called sunset laws provide that every government program should periodically end and continue only after an evaluation and legislative vote to reestablish it. Sunset laws do not promise a bright dawn in politics.
Legitimate concerns do underlie the growing support for sunset laws. Most notable is the concern and protest over the expansion of existing government programs required by the practice of automatic incremental budgeting. Next, many desire an opportunity to eliminate duplication and to encourage rationalization. Finally some desire to provide an incentive for government officials to improve performance. It is questionable, however, whether sunset laws are appropriate or effective remedies for those concerns.
More specifically, we may question whether sunset laws will create more meaningful program evaluation. Will they, in fact, represent a credible threat to terminate many, if not most, government programs? A fundamental paradox plagues sunset laws: the more programs that are subject to formal periodic review, the more superficial each individual evaluation will be because of the limited time and resources available to perform such evaluations. Thus, the more extensive the scope of the program, the less successful will be its results.
Most programs are instituted without a clear statement of objectives. They thereby fail to provide explicit criteria by which the success of the program may later be judged. Even if objectives are explicitly set forth, it is difficult to establish a cause and effect relationship between the existence of the program and subsequent trends or events. An example may be cited of the contention that: even when a periodic renewal requirement is combined with evaluations documenting that a program has no impact, there is no serious threat of termination. This appears in the record of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. The LEAA has been renewed several times by Congress despite official findings about its corruption and waste as well as its ineffectiveness. Would such long established government agencies as the FBI, IRS, and Postal Service ever seriously believe that they might be terminated?
People tend to fight harder to retain programs that directly benefit them than to terminate those that irritate them. Given this tendency, coalition politics in Congress will guarantee that the only programs threatened with termination will be those that have failed to cultivate a strong clientele.
Such observations reveal the enormous difficulties inherent in any gradualist approach to the removal of government intervention. There is a growing awareness that efforts like the sunset laws to “rationalize” the existing framework of government intervention will not even succeed in achieving their own limited objectives, much less provide a viable base from which to expand our opposition to government intervention.
Governments and those in power have wielded a panoply of manipulative techniques to control and mold citizens. The aim of such social control has been masterfully diagnosed by La Boétie as “voluntary servitude,” eliciting from the governed proper deference and conformity to the governors' prescriptions for social good.
Whatever the form of manipulation, all social control limits personal choice and autonomy. Sometimes control takes the form of such overt displays of state power as armies and court systems that serve vested interests. However, as both La Boétie and his classical model Tacitus suggested, more subtle and lasting control can be exercised by the molding of minds. In the modern era, this subtle control may be insinuated through compulsory public education which instills a politicized ideology. However, by limiting our analysis and devising scapegoats (such as the truant officer, teacher, bureaucrat, or judge), we confuse the personnel and symbols of control with the wider sociological and political nature of social control.