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Deficit Delight

By Jerome Richard

A Crisis Papers Guest Essay

February 27, 2004

The essence of the Bush League philosophy of government can be seen in the proposal to fund a manned mission to Mars at the same time it is running up a deficit of over half a trillion dollars. These are not, as many liberals suppose, contradictions; they are aspects of a consistent policy that social conservatives call "starving the beast."  Even fiscal conservatives miss the point.

The beast, of course, is the government. This attitude has its origins in Jefferson's dictum that the government is best that governs least, but somewhere along the line it got entangled with Social Darwinism. It is not only that society is best served by not interfering with its evolution, but that the poor deserve their fate because they made bad choices, and that probably goes for the sick as well. Welfare and entitlement programs are seen as interference. Helping the poor and the lame, in this view, weakens the species.

The problem with soft-hearted liberals is that they go all mushy at the sight of the so-called underprivileged and want to help them. The danger, it is believed, is that the poor will then no longer want to help themselves. Even worse, liberals tend to want to see society's wealth distributed if not evenly at least fairly. What is fair? If it weren't Karl Marx who said it, we would be proclaiming it on t-shirts: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." (All right: "From each according to his/her abilities," etc.)

Since not every member of Congress is as hard hearted as a Tom DeLay, the only way to keep government from helping those in need is to deprive it of funds. To starve the beast is defined as "to cut taxes with the intent of using the reduced revenue as an excuse to drastically reduce the size and number of services offered by a government."

If you're broke, you don't contribute to the March of Dimes. (Actually, poor people give a greater percentage of their income to charity than rich people, but that's a different story.) There are two ways to accomplish that. One is to reduce government revenue by cutting taxes. As Gary S. Becker, Edward P. Lazear, and Kevin M. Murphy wrote in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal (10/12/03): "Republicans…appear to be favoring fiscal stimulus, but they are mainly trying to limit future spending on entitlement and other programs favored by Democrats."

The other way to keep money from going to those who need it is to waste government funds on programs that do not directly help the unfortunate. While funds for housing vouchers and child care for the working poor are cut in Bush's proposed new budget, missile defense and a manned mission to Mars get increased financial support. An added bonus is that such non-entitlement programs end up as profits for defense contractors that are large contributors to the Republican Party, but the main objective is that there is little left for welfare and other entitlement programs.

As President Bush said in August, 2001, the disappearing surplus is "incredibly positive news" because it puts Congress in "a fiscal straitjacket. That will make it much easier to privatize Medicare and Social Security. (Fed Chairman Greenspan recently suggested that extending the Bush tax cuts could be paid for by reducing Social Security benefits.)

While fundamentalist Christians, who make up much of Bush's base, pity the unfortunate, social conservatives resent them as a drain on the economy. In a society built on rugged individualism, you are only entitled to what you earn. (An exception is made for children of the rich who are entitled to all the money their parents earned.) The shrinking middle class scrambles to join the elite or risks falling into poverty because tax policy and the disappearance of so many mid-level jobs makes life at the middle-class level increasingly untenable.

Starving the beast also sets a trap for future administrations. At some point the resulting deficit becomes so burdensome (or so embarrassing) that it is necessary to raise taxes. Bush I fell into that trap after Reagan ran up a large deficit and it contributed significantly to his defeat in 1992. The Democrats under Clinton had to raise taxes again and as a result lost Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections.

The beast metaphor tells us more about social conservatives than it does about government: they regard society as a jungle, and themselves as the mighty hunters.

Jerome Richard has written for The Humanist, San Francisco Chronicle, Baltimore Sun, SocialAction.com, CommonDreams.org and the Massachusetts Review. His novel, The Kiss of the Prison Dancer, will be published in May.


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances