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In her book “Degrees of Inequality” published last year, Suzanne Mettler, professor of government at Cornell University, quotes Dick Morris, President Clinton’s campaign adviser, defending the political superiority of tax benefits against the advice of the White House’s top economic advisers.

“Politically, people want us to downsize government,” he argued, “so we are developing ways of cutting taxes but achieving social good at the same time.”

But the strategy carries a cost. Such spending through the tax code not only offered the false promise of smaller government. Its most insidious effect was to hide what the government does and, notably, to shield from political debate which people it benefits most. That is clearly not those of middle and low income, who don’t earn enough to qualify for many tax deductions and often don’t even claim them.

Built in the shadows, protected from democratic accountability, the government developed into a Rube Goldberg contraption that has only a weak claim to a defensible social purpose. It might not be the smallest government in the advanced world, but it can lay claim to being among the least efficient and the most unfair.

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