Friday, July 16, 2010

Deficit Hypocrisy

Dick Cheney famously said in the early years of the George W. Bush administration that “deficits don’t matter.” Matthew Yglesias makes a strong case for regarding Cheney as a spokesman of the conservative movement and taking him literally. The political positions conservatives have taken over the last twenty years, he argues, reveal the following preference ordering (my emphasis):
“In order, conservatives care most about making taxes as low as possible, care second about making spending as low as possible, and like to pretend to care about the deficit when Democrats are in office. . . .

“Just compare the difference in reaction to Republican President George H.W. Bush who made taxes higher, spending lower, and the deficit smaller versus Republican President George W. Bush who made taxes lower, spending higher, and the deficit bigger. It’s true that conservatives whined about Bush’s spending, but they consistently advocated for the passage of his budgets. Nobody was read out of the movement for voting for his deals. The contrast with his father is clear. It’s clear, and it’s telling. Conservatives want spending cuts, but they want low taxes much more and the deficit just doesn’t play into the picture.”
Yglesias’s inference about conservative priorities seems pretty sound to me. Moreover, the italicized formulation fits the facts reasonably well: most conservative politicians never cared much about fiscal discipline until it presented itself as a handy political club to bludgeon Obama and Democratic congressmen. So Yglesias is on solid ground when he suggests that the conservative movement is no stranger to political opportunism.

Does that make conservative concern about deficits intellectually hypocritical? That’s a harder allegation to prove. All you need to back up the claim that your opponents are opportunists is a few instances of them saying things they’d never dreamed of saying when it wasn’t politically advantageous. To expose your opponents’ intellectual hypocrisy, you have to show that it’s unlikely that they really believe what they’re saying because there’s no coherent and remotely plausible view of the world that’s consistent with the political positions they’ve taken over time. In trying to make that case, you have to reckon with the possibility that you’re missing the unifying theory that explains, and in your opponents' eyes justifies, their various positions. When you make that mistake, you might find yourself bringing a knife to an ideological gunfight.

It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with an intellectual rationale for conservative preferences about fiscal policy that justifies what Cheney said about deficits as an excusable exaggeration. There’s a difference in believing, literally, that “deficits don’t matter” and believing a theory that goes something like this: Other things being equal, deficits are regrettable, but if you get tax rates and spending levels right (and therefore cut government down to its optimal size) deficits will take care of themselves over the long haul. Micro-management of the economy by any government, and particularly by a liberal government, however, is a recipe for public insolvency.

You might believe, as I do, that any theory along these lines is a suspiciously convenient thing for conservatives to believe and that it’s probably wrong to think that a responsible government can, or should, get out of the business of managing the business cycle through an activist monetary and fiscal policy. Yet the theory I’m imputing to conservatives is no more incoherent than the theory that the best way for an obese person to lose weight isn’t to undertake a crash diet and spend a lot of time on the scale obsessing about day-to-day fluctuations in his weight, but to settle on a sustainable diet and exercise regimen that would be advisable even if he weren’t overweight and let the weight loss take care of itself.

If conservatives really believe something analogous about fiscal policy, the real ideological contest over the economy is whether political management of the economy is inevitably self-defeating, or, as liberals believe, both advisable and unavoidable.

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