The Radicalness of Alleged Conservatives
In all honesty, much of what is coming out of the mouths of self-described conservatives is actually pretty darn radical.
What do I mean by this? Let’s consider: one of the fundamental notions, at least on paper, of being “conservative” is skepticism about the ability of reason to fix a specific problem due to the complex nature of human interactions. As such, while conservatives are willing to allow for change, they tend to prefer, again at in least in theory, small, incremental change (see: Burke, Edmund). The desire for incremental change is supposed to be predicated on the fear that the human mind is likely incapable of adequately considering all of the unintended consequences of a given action. It is best, conservative reasoning is supposed to go, to engage in change slowly so as to diminish the possible of human error, given that human error is quite likely to occur.
As such I find much that supposedly passes for “conservative” policy prescriptions these days to be, well, radical. By “radical” I mean that they encompass rapid change to the status quo. And, further, the assumption that such rapid change can revolutionize a given situation without too much regard for unintended consequences. Such moves tend to be the domain of the true believer.
Along these lines it seems to me that proposals that will utterly transform, in one stroke of the pen, a program that has been in place for almost half a century is pretty radical (i.e., Medicare for those of you scoring at home). Indeed, a grand irony here is that the PPACA was, objectively speaking, less radical than the Ryan Plan for Medicate/Medicaid as all it did was further institutionalize the existing system of private insurance mostly provided by employers, with the individual mandate being the only real innovation, and even then one that operated under the basic rules of the pre-PPACA system. The Ryan plan is a total overhaul of Medicare (indeed, is arguably its destruction and replacement).
I will say that there is one clear way that these proposals all qualify as traditionally “conservative” and is that the direct beneficiaries of the changes in question are already established power players, specifically upper level income earners who receive tax breaks and receive a diminished amount of responsibility in paying for benefits received by the vast majority of the population. This may sound like an ideological statement, but I find it to be an inescapably empirical one. The issue of whether any of the above is good or ill in a normative sense I will leave to the reader.*
There are two examples, beyond the Ryan Plan, that fit this general discussion, especially as it apply to the swiftness of the proposed changes (a rather un-conservative move, at least on paper) as well as a blatant disregard for unintended consequences.
Example one is via Politico: Tim Pawlenty: Obama gives ‘false choice’ on debt limit
“President Obama has set up a false choice,” Pawlenty said at an evening meeting of the Nashua Area Republican City Committee. “He has said either raise the debt ceiling or the United States of America will default on its bills to outside creditors, which could set off a series of negative events.”
Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and presidential hopeful, was forceful in opposing any increase in the country’s debt limit. He instead suggested that Congress pass legislation to prevent the government from defaulting by sequencing the payment of bills to prioritize debt obligations first — an approach that would presumably require major spending cuts to pay those bills.
I suppose that technically Pawlenty is right, there are other options. However, the choice he is suggesting is no choice at all, as it has no chance of passage (another option is that the Congress could vote to default and dare the holders of our debt to make us pay them—so Pawlenty’s right, there is more than one choice).** Further, he isn’t just suggesting a solution to short term issues of debt and borrowing. Rather, he is suggesting a radical, and near-immediate, restructuring of the federal government. This is hardly a measured approach to the problem.
Of course, as proposals go, it is problematic as it assume the ability to get massive cuts to all programs of the federal government, including entitlements and defense, pretty much on the fly. Given the difficulties in reaching the recent budget deal for the remainder of FY2011, this seems rather unlikely and therefore an imprudent, if not impudent, proposal. Further, it strikes me as disregarding unintended consequences.
It is worth noting, at least in passing, that Obama is hardly the only person stating that the debt limit must be raised. For example: George Will and Hank Paulson come to mind.
The second examples is via McClatchy:
DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, is vowing to block any vote on raising the U.S. debt ceiling unless Congress moves to amend the Constitution by banning future federal deficits.
“I will oppose any attempt to vote to raise the limit on our $14 trillion debt until Congress passes the balanced-budget amendment,” DeMint told McClatchy Newspapers.
First, the headline is a off, as it confuses yearly borrowing and long-term debt (although, technically, if the US government never, ever ran a deficit, then theoretically there would eventually be no new additional debt).
The notion of a balance budget amendment is appealing in an abstract sense, but in reality it is a foolish idea. Central governments need to have the flexibility to borrow funds to pay for ongoing policy as well as to engage in emergency spending. Yes, I concur that we borrow too much and need to get deficits (and the debt itself under control), but forcing balanced budgets by fiat is too constraining. For example, an ability to borrow (i.e., to run a deficit) is necessary for any number of things, such as having funds to respond to national emergencies (e.g., earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, etc.) not to mention national security issues that may arise. Averting the collapse of the financial sector and the economy have to be on the list as well.
It is worth noting that the US government has, for almost all of its existence, run a deficit. Indeed, the Sainted Founding Fathers wracked up a rather onerous debt to finance the war for independence. And those entities of political purity (the states) likewise had accumulated tremendous levels of debt to the point that one of the first major political actions of the Washington administration was for the federal government to assume said debt from said states.
And while I am not a big fan of analogizing government budgeting and family budgets, I will say this: the typical American’s experience with debt underscores that debt, per se, is not evil. Most of us would never be able to own a home, a car, or a college diploma without the ability to use debt as a means of financing. Further, the ability to plunk down the Visa card when one has a flat tire or for one of a plethora of surprises that life tosses our way is quite useful. If I had to carry enough cash on me to deal with those types of issues it would be problematic. So again: debt and deficits are not inherently evil (although I do agree that they are tools they need to be properly utilized).
I could see, by the way, part of the negotiation on the debt ceiling limit including a promise for a debate and vote on the balanced budget amendment, but the notion that the debt ceiling can only be raised once such an amendment is passed is a pretty darn hefty demand. Indeed, consider: it is basically stating that what is ultimately a housekeeping/accounting vote will not be allowed unless the Constitution itself (and the very nature of US fiscal policy) is altered.
Like Pawlenty’s suggestion, DeMint’s is pretty radical—it would require a massive and rapid shift in the way the federal government does business. While I understand that there are many who want such an outcome, it strikes me as reasonable to request a more reasoned approach to the situation. Again, while all the consequences of actions cannot be taken into account, what with our limited ability to predict the future and all, it is rather remarkable to see “conservatives” seeking such quick and dramatic action. Of course, this ultimately begs the question of whether “conservative” is, in fact, the appropriate label.***
At a minimum, there is less interest in the actual consequences of the suggestion than their is a dedicated ideological position.
*Further, there is the issue of why the current distributions of wealth exists. One could take the Burkean position that the basic distribution of wealth and power is the result of tried and true societal evolution, or the Randian position (as some readers have of late) that there are producers and their are “leeches” in society, or the position that the current power positions are the result of inequities that get reinforced by policies such as tax cuts (among others).
**And while I think declaring by fiat that we will not pay our debts and setting the National Debt at zero via legislation is a real option (i.e., it could be done), I would consider it to be a rather foolish option.
***Of course, it may well be that we in America have little idea what these labels mean.