GOP: Small Government, Big Bills

4 March 2004

By Stentor Danielson

Conservative discontent is starting to bubble to the surface around the country. Conservatives like to describe themselves as proponents of small government, by which they mean a government that taxes little and spends little. The current GOP establishment has bought the first part of the equation, relieving America's poor millionaires of a chunk of their tax burden. But they have shown little motivation to tackle the second. While Democrats have no ideological commitment to small government, they can get behind the issue of fiscal responsibility, and so they have been trying to make the budget deficit a campaign issue.

Conservatives feel that their principles have been sold out by a complacent Republican leadership. They have no leader to catalyze this discontent into a national force, no Howard Dean of the right. But some spots of opposition have shown up. Take for example the Republican primary race in Pennsylvania, where incumbent Arlen Specter faces a challenge from Rep. Pat Toomey. Specter, who is backed by the White House, has as his campaign theme "clout," which translates as "federal spending for Pennsylvania." Toomey, on the other hand, is fiercely ideological, promising to slash spending rather than pander with it.

There's some truth to Toomey's claim that the pork-barrel ways of Specter and the rest of the GOP establishment are not conservative. But what he misses is how fiscal irresponsibility is rooted in the conservative small-government philosophy.

To see the connection, we need to look at what the money is being spent on. There's a tendency in American politics to assume that a policy that you dislike must be good from the other side's point of view. So liberals figure that the level of their outrage at Bush is a measure of how conservative his administration is. Conservatives imagine that Bush's betrayals of conservatism must be appealing to liberals. In reality, Bush has found a "third way" between these two philosophies -- crony-ism.

It would be one thing if Republicans were funding important social needs -- say, health care for the needy and improved environmental enforcement -- in ways that efficiently achieved benefits for the nation. Instead, the money is being spent for the personal advantage of Republican leaders and those whose support they want.

The Medicare prescription drug plan, for example, was a mechanism to channel federal funds to drug companies in the guise of a plan to help seniors get medicine. Last year's omnibus spending bill had $23 billion worth of pork -- spending earmarked for projects in influential congresspeople's districts -- doubling Clinton-era levels.

Let's return to the small government formula -- less taxes, less spending. The conservative argument against taxes is, in its purest form, an accusation of theft. By the conservative view, every cent you earn belongs to you and you alone. It's not just inconvenient, it's morally illegitimate, for the government to demand a cut of your paycheck. The government hasn't earned anything.

With less tax revenue, the government ought to spend less. But this anti-government philosophy gets twisted around when its holders become the government. As presidents and members of Congress, Republicans find themselves charged with making use of a pot of what they take to be ill-gotten money. It's money with no strings attached, acquired not on a moral basis but through the naked power of the IRS. So it's no wonder that Republicans in government see little need to spend the federal treasury responsibly. It's free money, so it may as well be treated as spoils.

Republicans have become so addicted to giving away money that they keep going even when there's no money to give away. Having slashed tax rates, they continue to act as if the treasury were flush with cash to be misappropriated to boost their reelection campaigns.

Democrats have been no angels when it comes to using the treasury wisely (though they did better back in the Clinton years, and the current candidates won't tire of telling you so). But liberalism at least provides a philosophical corrective against viewing the taxation and spending system as a mere exercise of power, to be used at will by whoever holds the reins.

On the liberal account, taxes are owed in a moral sense to the government. Your ability to earn an income was only possible because of government services -- national defense, the rule of law, the transportation system, and so forth. Beyond selfish reasons, liberalism says that a nation is a cooperative enterprise in which people throw their lot in together. The government is our agent for carrying out social policy. Taxation and spending are a way to concentrate the surplus wealth of the country to achieve democratically agreed-upon goals.

The moral purpose of taxation puts a condition on spending the revenue -- it must be used for the social good in order to be legitimate. Responsible spending on the most worthy causes, not handouts to the most politically influential, must be the order of the day. John Kerry and the various Democratic congressional candidates need to think hard about whether they have the moral strength to resist the call of Republican spending habits.

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