GOP Picks the Wrong Spending Fight

May 16th, 2011 at 8:20 am | 8 Comments |

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One might note within many ostensibly conservative discussions about the debt ceiling a strain that comes far more from Leon Trotsky than from Edmund Burke. One of the principal tenets of Burkean conservatism is the importance of avoiding Armageddon: crises are best held at arms’ length, and revolution should be the measure of last resort.

Not raising the debt ceiling now could very likely be Armageddon: it would immediately force the government to spend no more than it took in in taxes. In 2010, tax revenue covered not even 60% of federal spending, so over 40% of the federal budget would have to be cut NOW to make up for it. Unemployment benefits–ended. Air Force jets–grounded. You need heart surgery, grandma? Maybe next year.

Not raising the debt ceiling would not necessarily lead to defaulting on the debt: the US could still make its interest payments. However, some prominent Republicans are now suggesting that even defaulting on the debt wouldn’t be that bad. Since the election of George Washington, the federal government has never defaulted. Is it really worth throwing that legacy away to make a political point? Defaulting on the debt would very likely lead to higher interest rates and make the debts of private individuals as well as those of many governments even more onerous. An outright default could wreak havoc on the domestic and global financial systems.

Such an outcome could be a sure way to reduce the Republican party to the party of the 30% and make it radioactive for years to come.

And that political price would be by far the least problematic result of that scenario for allies of traditional liberty and conservatism. Deficit spending may perhaps be an important reason why we have not seen turmoil in the streets a la Greece, Egypt, and the waning days of the Roman republic. In terms of employment, this is the worst economy since the Great Depression. The social safety net is being strained in extraordinary ways, and the sudden cuts required by not raising the debt ceiling could be the equivalent of cutting it away. With those cuts to institutions that people have built their lives around (such as Social Security), a huge cross-section of this nation could erupt in rage.

Mob outrage is almost the polar opposite of classical American conservatism, and, if we did come to such public turmoil, there is no guarantee that the result would be a more economically free society.

One realizes that much of the debate over the debt ceiling is an exercise in partisan cynicism. Every Democrat opposed raising the debt ceiling in 2006, while almost every Republican (including the leading opponents of raising the debt ceiling) supported the raise in 2006. Meanwhile, almost every single House Republican has de facto pledged to raise the debt ceiling by voting for the Ryan budget, which gives us trillions of dollars in more debt over the next few years. House and Senate Republicans overwhelmingly backed nearly a trillion dollars in tax cuts and stimulus spending at the end of 2010. The premise of those tax cuts and stimulus spending was that they would push the economy along, even though those measures will, in the short term at least, add to the debt. By their votes, Congressional Republicans have declared that this nation can handle more debt.

The whole debate over raising the debt ceiling is also, in part, a game of chicken: Republicans want to force more spending concessions and potential entitlement “reforms” from Democrats. But something of the complexity of entitlement reform is perhaps the last thing that should be rushed; Republicans should not want entitlement reform to replicate Obamacare (and other measures), when Congress is voting on unread and uncomprehended bills.

Ironically for authentic opponents of debt, not raising the debt ceiling and defaulting on the debt could make the federal debt that much worse. One of the driving forces for federal debt over the past few years has been the poor economy: the economic slow-down, with its resulting decrease in tax revenue and encouragement of government spending on unemployment benefits and so forth, is probably the single biggest contributing factor to our current deficit. The poor economy is an immediate dagger aimed at the fiscal heart of this nation.

In order to keep from hitting the debt ceiling, Republican leaders may find it wise to offer their support for a relatively small increase of the debt ceiling (say a few hundred billion or even a trillion dollars). Classical conservatism teaches that, sometimes, if you can succeed in delaying a crisis enough, your prudence can ensure that there will be no crisis at all. Sometimes that strategy fails (witness the Civil War), but it can often succeed. And even if delay fails, sometimes that delay allows you time to gather your forces to help you cope with the eventual crisis; at least the Civil War didn’t happen until the Union was strong enough to weather such a war. Many of the trappings of the current federal government are sustainable, especially with modest long-term reforms. The long-term fiscal situation of the nation may be somewhat scary, but it can be improved. Kicking the can down the road isn’t always a bad thing, not if it gives you time to solve the problem. From a classical conservative perspective, inciting a crisis now in order to avoid a potential crisis in the future may be a bad trade.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.


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8 Comments so far ↓

  • indy

    These days, picking the wrong fight is the GOP motto.

  • ottovbvs

    ostensibly conservative discussions about the debt ceiling a strain that comes far more from Leon Trotsky than from Edmund Burke.

    Well that would be because the widespread nihilism in todays’ GOP (you can pick up strains of it every day on this very blog) is essentially the same as that of Trotskyism.

  • TAZ

    Sure wish we would get some grown-ups in my Republican party that could address such issues correctly.

    What an embarrassment!

  • Primrose

    I think Mr. Frum, you make an essential mistake in assuming that Republicans are conservative. They have a different ideology but it isn’t based in philosophical or temperamental caution. They are not They are not calling for more incremental change toward a shared goal, like gay marriage/gays in military, or even the reduction in benefits. They want to slash and burn everything in the past 100 years, except environmentally dangerous practices, that they want to go full speed ahead on.

    I seem to recall that their philosophy used to be called reactionary. It certainly seems like that is what they are doing, reacting. They interpreted the great social change of the 60’s (and the last century), not as a natural occurrence (ie. change) , or a political process, but as a humiliation, and they want to drag us back to a time when they felt more proud.

    I’m deliberately not using phrases like white men, since I feel plenty of white men went with the flow, or at least were more gracious about the change once it happened. I’m not using the word establishment since I think those people are dead and gone, and I feel certain that some of the most vocal supporters of this reaction would have been snubbed royally by said establishment.

    And yet, the reactionaries, are looking toward that time, that world. Never mind that the change that happened, the loosening of class, sex, race categories helped them. I’m looking at you Ms. Palin, Mr. Beck, yeah even Mr. Boehner, who would have stayed sweeping his parents bar had we lived in pre-60’s establishment times. Because these people are successful they assume that they always would have been successful, no matter the conditions. I’m not scholar of Burke, but I agree with Mr. Frum that I think this is a very unconservative approach. If you thought all the social change of the last century came at a very high price, it doesn’t mean that a flying jibe back to that time will undo the harm. The harm came from the intensity of the change, not so much the choices themselves. Another great change will cause similar great harm.

    Unless of course you don’t think great change does cause great harm and at that point, stop whining and move on already.

  • Graychin

    It may well be the wrong fight if Republicans really want to bring down the deficit. But that isn’t the real agenda at all, and their past actions prove that they don’t care about deficits and never did.

    The real agenda is bringing down Obama in 2012.

    The only way that can happen is if the economy goes into another plunge. What better way to bring that on than to instigate a financial crisis?

    What about the collateral damage? In the immortal words of John Boehner: “So be it.”

  • mickster99

    There is no more GOP. It’s TeaBaggers all the way down.

  • think4yourself

    First, the article links to “prominent Republicans” which interviews one, who used to run George Soros’s fund who is a registered Independent (but does call Obama’s response to Paul Ryan’s budget proposal a partisan attack).

    Look, the GOP isn’t interested in raising the debt ceiling or balancing the budget, they are interested in lowering taxes, especially for those who make a lot of money, cutting programs close to Democratic hearts and winning back the Presidency and the Senate. It is about power and politics. It is not about compromise or bargaining because this is reality tv politics and any compromise means weakness, unless you’re doing it for a trick in order to pull a fast one on your opponent.

    Statesmen tell their supporters “we’re going to make sacrifices” for the good of the country. Not too many statesmen in Washington.

  • valkayec

    Mr. Bauer, instead of preaching to the choir here at FrumForum, you should be sending your message to every Tea Party organization across the country, into every GOP held district and state, and to every major newspaper. And while you’re at it, send along this information from Reagan.

    In 1983, Reagan warned that the consequences of failing to raise the nation’s borrowing limit “are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate”:

    The full consequences of a default — or even the serious prospect of default — by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and the value of the dollar in exchange markets. The Nation can ill afford to allow such a result. The risks, the costs, the disruptions, and the incalculable damage lead me to but one conclusion: the Senate must pass this legislation before the Congress adjourns.

    In a 1987 radio address, Reagan also said, “Congress consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinksmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits. Interest rates would skyrocket, instability would occur in financial markets, and the Federal deficit would soar.”