The Corner

Chait, The Deficit Etc

Ramesh and I are/were planning on writing a piece together on the whole effort by some conservatives to defend Bush’s spending binge by crafting some new ideology variously called, “big government conservatism,” “strong government conservatism,” and, of course, “compassionate conservatism.” We’ve both been too busy to get it done, but maybe Jonathan Chait’s new cover story in The New Republic will get us motivated.

Regardless, here’s one point I would like to make now though and it’s aimed at folks like Dan Casse and Andrew Sullivan on the right as well as folks like Chait:

It’s not the deficit stupid!

For good reasons and bad, the argument about government over-spending has become an argument about the deficit. I care a lot about the former, I don’t care very much about the latter.

The deficit is a symptom, like a fever or the sniffles. The disease is big government. The anti-deficit mantra is often based on actuarial assumptions and the extrapolation of the lessons of personal finance to political economy. This isn’t to say that a big deficit is a good thing just as a bad cough isn’t a good thing. The question is what’s causing it. When I read Andrew Sullivan’s drum-banging about the deficit I sometimes get the sense he’d have no problem with all of this spending and government bloat if, at the end of the day, the budget was balanced. The conservative case against bloated government is not an accounting argument, it’s a philosophical argument. I would be against socialized medicine even if socialized medicine was fiscally feasible. I’m not sure when it happened, but for some reason the debate has changed since Ronald Reagan. Reaganites, last time I checked, didn’t care very much about deficits — so long as the economy was growing — they cared about intrusive government which sapped individual initiative, calcified the mechanisms of the marketplace and inexorably eroded personal liberty and communal autonomy, among other things.

Chait may be making a valid observational point when he writes “And so, in a relatively short span of time, the conservative view of the deficit has gone from myopic denial to borderline hysteria.” But for some of us, the “hysteria” about the deficit is epiphenomenal to our substantive concern about a metastasizing federal government.


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