“Sometimes conservatives get tagged as being against all government,” said Sen. Rand Paul at a Reagan Library event the other day. “I’m not against all government. I’m actually for $2.6 trillion dollars worth,” he said. “I’m for spending what comes in, but nothing in excess of what comes in.”
Yes, he’s running for the presidency. You can tell, because he’s appealing directly to the masses of Americans who, not without some reason, like big government but are afraid of “out-of-control” government. He’s trying to stake out a middle ground, a “common sense” ground.
Alas, it’s more a muddle ground than a middle ground, and it’s not very sensible.
On the face of it, he sounds reasonable: Unbalanced budgets are a huge problem, a looming threat to America’s future. His idea? Stop deficit spending. Just spend what the government takes in as normal revenue.
What could be more commonsensical than that?
This should be the bipartisan, transpartisan norm. Something we can all agree upon.
Washington insiders, of course, hate such talk, because it would curb their spending, and suggest a whole different way to manage “the economy” than the current “method.” But regular Americans, of all parties, know that debt cannot accumulate and grow forever, and that priorities demand some sacrifice. This is not “austerity” so much as . . . real world budgeting.
But, as basic as it is, it’s something of an illusion.
Time Is Not On Our Side
Federal revenue, not including loans, amounts to $2.6 trillion. So, if the government spent that amount, we’d be fine, right?
This year. But next year, the amount to spend will grow, and the year after, it will grow further.
Why? Because spending is driven, in no small part, by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and now Obamacare (the last is not an official department, of course).
Such “entitlement” spending depends on claims made by citizens: citizens retiring, or citizens going to the doctor, hospital, or pharmacist. The current entitlement system is set up to grow and grow and grow. So a simple “I like 2.6 trillion dollars’ worth of government” mantra means almost nothing.
The spending target is a moving target. To meet rising demands of the entitlement system, either taxes will have to be raised dramatically, other government services cut dramatically, or the entitlement system reformed dramatically.
That’s too much drama for any consensus based on a vacuous “$2.6 trillion-sized government” slogan. Any one of those three solutions would hurt some folks, a combination of all three would find huge outcries of unreasoning complaint.
Time is not on the side of a “centrist” solution. The time for simple, don’t-rock-the-boat solutions is long over. Major change would be epochal. Such a change will require more than a flip “winnable” attitude and political stance.
The Implausibility of Rational Policy
Rand Paul wants to “change current perceptions” of what it means to be a conservative or a Republican. While it’s true that neither conservatism nor Republicanism implies anarchism (what a shocker) the idea that conservatives should support the general structure and set of proportions of the current federal government is not plausible. There is no reason to believe that even half of the federal union’s current policies — as concocted by congressional aides in conjunction with special interests, voted on by distracted and preening representatives and senators, signed into law by pompous, know-nothing windbags in the White House, and then multiplied by bureaucrats in the Executive Branch’s too-numerous departments and bureaus — are anything like good or efficacious, much less just.
Most policies do harm — far more harm than good. Indeed, new legislation and new regulations proliferate largely to correct the negative results of previous regulations, prohibitions and giveaways. And, in the course of this ballooning mass of chicane-cum-governance, little gets repealed. The burdensome mass of atrocious government policy just accumulates.
It was shown long ago that policies cannot be consistent, over time, in a democracy. Mathematically proved. But our common experience shows the situation is much worse than predicted. Policies are incoherent, fighting against each other, canceling each other out, or worse. And the regulations alone make a mockery of the rule of law.
The federal government is a far bigger mess than implied by Kentucky’s junior senator’s politic formulation.
Taxes Are Still Too High
Of course, the senator recognizes all this. He knows that government is a mess. He knows there’s too much spending. Though it’s obvious he carefully formulated his rubric to unstop the clogged minds of his opponents, I’m sure that Senator Rand knows something even more basic:
TAXES ARE TOO HIGH.
Taxes are a drain on our pocketbooks, and a drain on “the economy.” Though politicians like to use taxation as a means of social engineering, and progressives are constantly tempted to use taxes as a means of class warfare, both these strategies backfire. We’re left with the wisdom of the great economist Jean-Baptiste Say: “A tax can never be favorable to the public welfare, except by the good use that is made of its proceeds.” And:
The best scheme of finance is, to spend as little as possible; and the best tax is always the lightest.
All current tax revenues offer us is an upper limit for spending, not any sort of justification.
That’s surely what Rand Paul was driving at. One would think that the essence of conservatism would be to maintain more skepticism about government spending than the mere insistence upon an upper limit.
What members of the Republican Party make of such skepticism is another matter, of course. A political party is a tribe set to win elections. And the standard reason to join a tribe like that is to distribute the spoils of conquest.
And it is because of this aspect of politics that government grows. Even beyond Rand Paul’s too-generous upper limit. [further reading]
June 2, 2013
This column first appeared on Townhall.com.