The Corner

Who Is the Constituency for the Budget Deal?

I largely agree with Bill Kristol about the politics of the budget deal, that its most important aspect is the alleviation of sequester limits on defense spending. But I’d put it in a slightly different way: This doesn’t have very much at all to do with balancing the budget or restoring sanity to the appropriations process — the point of the deal is to get the money flowing to defense contractors, who are pretty much the only private-sector constituency making much of a ruckus about the sequester. This is the age-old problem of concentrated benefits vs. dispersed costs: The great majority of voters do not care very much about any particular slice of spending, but every slice of spending has somebody who cares about  it a great deal, in most cases somebody who is paid a great deal of money to care a great deal about it.

Funding for national defense and border security is a special issue, because those are uniquely federal and governmental responsibilities. (The libertarian science-fiction fan in me can imagine a free-market border patrol, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict that that is not a real policy option in this century.) The army is not just another federal subsidy for unicorn farms, and it is one of the few areas of federal spending in which policy concerns must almost always overrule budget concerns. The real value (economic and non-economic) of a well-functioning national-defense system (assume we have one, for the sake of argument) is as much unrealized as realized; just as a gun kept for home defense performs its purpose even if it never is fired — never firing it is in fact the preferred outcome – a great part of the value of maintaining a truly fearsome military is that you don’t have to use it all that often.

That being said, conservatives should not assume that $1 appropriated to national security is doing $1 worth of national-security work. There is a great deal of waste, redundancy, and superfluity in our security spending, and any long-term agenda for fiscal sanity must take that into account. As a matter of political expediency — which is not a trivial concern — it probably is the case that Republicans would cut a much better deal swapping military cuts for non-military reductions when negotiating from a position of power, such as when they are in possession of a Senate majority or the presidency or both. In that case, it may make sense to put off that very difficult reform program until some point in the future. But the time available for rationalizing our finances is not infinite. Even if we concede that this is politically and substantively the best deal that can be secured at this time (and I am happy to defer to Mr. Kristol’s judgment in that matter), it is not a meaningful step toward the ultimate goal of averting a fiscal and economic disaster. 

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