Maybe “Starve the Beast” Just Requires a Lot More Patience and Nihilism Than Anyone Anticipated

Grover Norquist just attempted to defend his infamous “no tax hikes ever” pledge on the grounds that it forces government to focus on cutting spending — the old “starve the beast” theory of right-wing governance. Conor Frierdersdorf is having none of it:

In fact, it is more important than ever to be rid of The Pledge, because it has been a colossal failure.  Does anyone think that fiscal conservatives should be happier with the state of our nation’s finances now than they were when the pledge began 25 years ago? Does anyone still harbor the illusion that “starve the beast” is an effective method of shrinking the federal government?

Frierdersdorf quotes Kevin Williamson making essentially the same argument in National Review, and I know Bruce Bartlett has sounded this note as well. But I think it proves less than Conor and the other critics of “starve the beast” think it proves.

Obviously, we’ve demonstrated that using growing deficits to force spending cuts does not work over short time horizons. I think all sane and responsible people who initially bought into “starve the beast” did so on the assumption it would play out relatively quickly. A few years at most.

But what about long time horizons? What if starve the beast does work, but it just takes 25 to 30 years of mounting deficits and fiscal dysfunction before our political and civic culture finally swallows the cuts necessary to balance the government’s budget? Consider this latest fiasco over the debt ceiling increase. The Republicans and their Tea Party base may very well fail to gut the welfare state with whatever deal is finally struck, but I think it’s fair to say they’ve come within striking distance of that goal. Certainly closer than they’ve been at any other point in the last 25 years. (A prospect which, as a dedicated lefty, I find horrifying and infuriating.)

Now, obviously, intentionally mounting up debt for a quarter century in the name of imposing your preferred ideological vision is irresponsible to the point of nihilism. But this gets us to Friedersdorf’s more important oversight — namely, his belief that the American Right actually gives a damn about fiscal responsibility:

What Norquist doesn’t understand or won’t admit is that deficit spending is worse than a tax increase, because you’ve got to pay for it eventually anyway, with interest. Meanwhile, you’ve created in the public mind the illusion that the level of government services they’re consuming is cheaper and less burdensome than is in fact the case. If you hold the line on taxes but not the deficit, you’re making big government more palatable.

In terms of policy, as well as maintaining a healthy and self-aware civic/political culture, this is all perfectly accurate. But here’s the thing: Even if the public were receiving the full negative reinforcement of appropriate tax levels, as well as the positive reinforcement of popular government programs, the equilibrium we’d settle on would still be a bigger government than the Right is willing to tolerate. American voters remain incorrigibly resolute in their approval of the welfare state.

A conservative like Frierdersdorf (or Bruce Bartlett, Andrew Sullivan, etc.) could probably live with that. As far as I can tell, they support in moral terms — or at least do not obsessively oppose — what big government tries to do. But they also fear big government’s capacity to wreck the country’s economy. Their beef is based mainly on concerns with fiscal sustainability, so of course they’re going to oppose methods of shrinking government which themselves threaten or hold hostage the country’s fiscal health — such as 25 years of starve the beast, or risking economic cataclysm by not raising the debt ceiling.

And yet here we are, with a solid majority of the American Right and the conservative movement happily embracing both strategies. Which I really do think rules out the possibility that they care about fiscal responsibility. Maybe,maybe, most of them are so confused about economics, policy and history that they honestly think even a welfare state as modestly sized as America’s is completely economically unsustainable. But I find that hard to believe. Rather, if you simply listen to how they actually talk, they really are that obsessively opposed to big government. Or, rather, to the things for which you need a big government. The purpose and nature of the welfare state, whether on the European scale or the American scale, offends them as a matter of morality, of principle, and of ideology. And they feel this so strongly that they’re quite comfortable taking the nihilistic, scorched earth approach to shrinking government — fiscal sustainability be damned.

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