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April 28, 2005

Who You Calling a Tax-and-Spend Liberal?

Commenting on the British elections, Sullivan writes:

I also fear that the battering of Blair means a future Brown government will keep increasing spending and so hamper Britain's post-Thatcher renaissance. I'd happily vote Tory this time on those grounds alone. Of course, no one on the Labour left in Britain is proposing the kind of government spending that Bush Republicans are engaged in. In that sense, Bush is far to the fiscal left of anyone in current British politics. What an irony. We used to think that even British Tories were more liberal than America's Democrats. But Bush's and DeLay's massive spending and borrowing makes Blair look like a born-again Thatcherite.

Wha?  C'mon now, Andy must be aware that liberalism is about more than some deep-seated affinity for borrowing-and-spending.  No one reading my blog could mistake my politics for anything but those of a lefty, and yet even I don't spend my nights scheming out how to drain America's coffers through some devious cocktail of borrowing and spending.  Not most nights, anyway.

That's one of the interesting distinctions separating Democrats from Republicans.  Democrats have a social vision, an idea of how government should interact with its citizens and a menu of social programs and initiatives that'll bring it about.  What we don't have is a particular attachment to any method of raising the revenue.  Some of us want to deficit spend, some want to raise taxes, some want to wait for better economic times, some want to divert general revenue from other ends, and some have novel combos of the above.  But it's all cases the funding decisions are means to our ends, how we finance our programs are rarely, if ever, ends in themselves.

That's a pretty stark contrast with the right, which is  more focused on how they fiddle with the government's finances rather than what they do with the money.  That's why so much of their intellectual firepower has been spent convincing Americans that tax cuts are indeed a social program par excellence, an economic prescription for every fiscal situation.  Tax cuts, of course, are not only a way to shrink the government, but through the Laffer curver, a way to raise its revenues.  They're not only, according to Bush,  the only logical thing to do during a surplus, but they're also crucial during a recession.  The entirety of the right's economic philosophy is really the idea of tax cuts as a means to most any end, which has allowed them to not only slice taxes but do so while enlarging and adding new government programs.

In that way, Sullivan's really concentrating on the wrong folks when he tries to define a party by their spending habits.  Liberals don't much care how we get the cash, we're defined by what we want to do with it.  Republicans, on the other hand, are almost solely focused on this single way of managing the government's finances, and because they've concocted all manner of fantastic explanations for why tax cuts are rational in every situation, are much easier defined by the cycle of cut, spend, and borrow because that, not some further end, is what they enter government in order to do.  Saying it's really the left who is identified by it is just a transparent attempt at projection.

April 28, 2005 in Economics | Permalink

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Comments

That's all very lovely, and it's true, I don't lie awake at night trying to figure out how to spend government money...anymore. But in the seventies, really, most of what I heard was "how can the government fix that" and "how much will we spend on the new program". "Tax and spend liberal" worked for Reagan because, in part, the label stuck. Is it true now? No, I think the left - and here's where Bill Clinton, I think, was quite smart - has embraced the notion that public/private partnerships work, that the governement isn't just what you spend but how you spend it, and that government should be expected, as in the private sector, to account realistically for what goes out and what comes in. Until the early nineties, some of that belonged to Republicans, and I think relinquishing that ground was one of their biggest long-term mistakes. The point being, though lefties are often loath to admit it, fiscal conservatives were right about something. Budgets should be more balanced and government should be more accountable. Dems actually practicing that rhetoric is a development I've seen change in my lifetime.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 28, 2005 12:54:37 PM

Tonight, Bush will go on TV defending his right to shower energy companies with pork paid by reducing your future Soc. Sec. checks. I have opposed this energy pork from the gitgo, but then I'm unAmerican - I guess.

Posted by: pgl | Apr 28, 2005 1:24:50 PM

The thing is, weboy, even if "tax and spend" were a fair description of liberal political philosophy, it is still more responsible than "tax cut and spend". "Fiscal conservative" is a really unhelpful term because it encompasses both those for whom balanced budgets are the key, and those for whom lower taxes are the key. Those are two very different groups.

Ezra: Sullivan also errs on a much more basic level. British government spending is something like 38% of GDP. Even with the Republicans massive splurge, US government spending is around 30%, and obviously federal spending, which is what he's talking about, is even less.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Apr 28, 2005 1:40:38 PM

Everytime I see Andrew Sullivan on TV or read one of this articles, I am amazed that he has become something of a celebrity. He just doesn't make sense. He lies about any facts that could be inconvenient. He goes into tirades about meaningless drivel and seems out of touch with reality. Yet, the lying asshole ends up on Hardball as though he is worth listening to. He's just a real sick individual.

Posted by: marvyt | Apr 28, 2005 2:43:16 PM

You'd think that the balanced budgets, government "reinvention" efforts and infinity-surpluses of the Clinton years, and their effect on fiscal discpline as a cause celebre of the Democrats, would have made more of an impression on people like Andrew Sullivan - or anyone concerned with these issues. But instead, he and others continue to write that no matter how bad Bush is on budgetary or government-size questions, the Democrats (or John Kerry) are worse, or would be worse, if given the chance.

It's just not true.

Posted by: mikey | Apr 28, 2005 3:15:08 PM

Andy must be aware that liberalism is about more than some deep-seated affinity for borrowing-and-spending.

He's really, really not.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Apr 29, 2005 1:19:35 AM

Dear Oren
Back in ww2 the country was serious about winning the war and established various conservation efforts by rationing essential goods. If we would ration gas, it would cut down our dependency for Arabian oil, lower our negative balance of payments and keep American dollars from financing Islamic terrorists.
Grandpa

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 15, 2007 7:15:52 AM

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