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Ends, Means, and the Federal Budget Fight
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By Anonymous, December 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

Over the last few weeks, newspapers across the country have been discussing the failure of the so-called supercommittee.  Congress established the body this summer to strike a bipartisan deal to reduce the federal budget deficit.  Its target was to slash spending by some $2 trillion over the next decade, and—here's the key—if the twelve committee members could not agree on these cuts by November 23, federal expenditures, including on defense, would be cut automatically by $1.2 trillion.  Predictably, the committee’s failure has prompted finger-pointing across the aisle, as Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of dogmatism and inflexibility in the negotiations.  Americans of both parties, especially Republicans, should be worried, because this experience suggests that the GOP’s approach to America’s fiscal crisis is fundamentally misguided.  To put it simply, the party has confused ends and means.   The committee’s failure also suggests that American political culture and institutions are growing more dysfunctional, which raises grave concerns about the government’s ability to face up to problems that cannot be ignored for much longer.

The two parties have offered sharply different explanations for the committee’s failure.  Republicans complain that the Democrats refused to consider major cuts to social programs like Medicare and Social Security.  The Democrats were not “willing to put a proposal on the table that actually solves the problems,” said committee co-chair Jeb Hensarling.  For their part, the Democrats insist that Republicans’ outright refusal to consider raising taxes (even by allowing the Bush administration’s income tax cuts to expire) was the main impasse.  Some Democrats have suggested that the Republican committee members were in the thrall of Grover Norquist’s lobby group Americans for Tax Reform, which staunchly opposes tax increases in any form and whose Taxpayer Protection Pledge has been signed by 238 members of the House and 41 members of the Senate.  

We should set aside any speculation or conspiracy theories about the alleged influence of any lobby group over elected officials’ views.  But the GOP’s categorical refusal to consider raising taxes is dangerous regardless of the motives behind it.  By eschewing pragmatism, it threatens to bring the country to the brink of fiscal crisis for the sake of an article of faith.  This situation is all the worse because this faith is non-falsifiable, insisting—regardless of evidence pro or con—that lower taxes always yield higher economic growth.

No responsible politician or economist would suggest that taxes are ends in themselves. No government (at least in the Western world) has an interest in taking money from its citizens for its own sake.  But taxes are necessary to fund government programs.  They are a means to an end.  A truism this obvious should not need pointing out.  The rhetoric of House and Senate Republicans suggests, however, a belief that taxes are not a necessary evil but an evil full stop.  Only if one starts from this premise can one argue that taxes should never rise no matter what the circumstances.  Consider, however, where this argument leads. If the only acceptable course of action in any circumstance is to cut federal spending and, presumably, to reduce taxes as much as possible, the federal budget will always shrink and, along with it, the ability of the federal government to act in the common interest of all Americans—whether that common interest is national defense or the regulation of new prescription medicines. 

One may well argue that the federal government in its current form is too intrusive, too large, and does too many things that ought to be left to the free market or to the states.  The longstanding American impulse to keep government spending in check was an important ingredient in the country’s growth during the 20th century.  But it is one thing to make a reasoned argument about paring back particular federal functions and something quite different to take as a point of doctrine that taxes and federal spending are per se undesirable and should be reduced no matter what.  To take this latter position conflates what the federal government ought to do with how it ought to do it.  It erases any meaningful distinction between ends and means and, in so doing, discredits the whole notion of federal action and thereby the federal government itself.

This is not to say that the Democrats or the Obama administration are in the right about federal spending.  But it does mean that the Republican party’s approach to the budget fight, no matter how much electoral sense it might make, places partisan interest ahead of the national interest and thereby does a disservice to American voters and corrodes the effectiveness of the institutions of the federal government.  Unlike the current situation in Greece or, for that matter, Italy, the United States has not yet reached a point of mortal fiscal crisis.  But Congressional Republicans’ refusal to compromise, which is based on dogmatism rather than pragmatism, means that the country runs the risk of facing a crisis not unlike the one now roiling Europe. Crises cannot be solved by compromises, half-measures, and muddling through—as the EU’s leaders are now learning to their chagrin.  Swift and decisive action is necessary.  In a security crisis, the president has to keep every military option on the table.   It would be outrageous for him to say, “I will do anything to defend American security, except consider the use of X or Y.”  It is no different in a fiscal crisis: the federal government needs to have all options on the table in order to solve a problem that goes to the heart of the country’s national interest.

Even more seriously, the supercommittee debacle raises grave doubts about the federal government’s ability to deal with the crisis that will come sooner or later in the absence of serious action.  Shortly after taking office, David Cameron’s coalition government in the UK moved swiftly to initiate drastic budget cuts.  Its parliamentary majority enabled it to act decisively and with minimal interference by the opposition.  The same thing has been true in other parliamentary systems, even in the crisis-torn countries of continental Europe.  But the American federal government’s division of powers makes, by design, swift action in domestic affairs impossible.  If the last three years have taught us anything however, it is that financial crises can appear just as unexpectedly as military crises.  But whereas the government can act swiftly to address military threats, the same is not true for financial threats.  

The worst tragedy of the ongoing economic crisis would not be a rise in yields on American bonds, or a further downgrade in the country’s creditworthiness.  It would be the erosion of citizens’ faith in the government’s ability to deal with problems that threaten the foundations of the country’s prosperity.  In a crisis, dogmas are unaffordable luxuries.  Pragmatism and a relentless focus on ends, not means, are the only viable principles of action.  American leaders since the Revolutionary War—including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt—have demonstrated this point time and again.  It is therefore incumbent upon Congressional Republicans to demonstrate some ideological flexibility for the sake of the national interest.  With their pragmatism, they can restore citizens’ faith in their government’s ability to act and in America’s ability to deal with any problem that comes its way.

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1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on Dec 16, 2011 at 7:08 am

A well-reasoned and fair analysis of the budget and political problems that confront this nation. The tragedy is that I don't see any solution to this problem, even with the 2012 election approaching. It seems that both parties have placed partisan interest above national ones and will continue to do so in the future.