April 21, 2004
Fiscal conservatives for Kerry

Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute makes A Conservative Case for Voting Democratic.

Complaints about Republican profligacy have led the White House to promise to mend its ways. But Bush's latest budget combines accounting flim-flam with unenforceable promises. So how do we put Uncle Sam on a sounder fiscal basis?

Vote Democratic.

Democrats obviously are no pikers when it comes to spending. But the biggest impetus for higher spending is partisan uniformity, not partisan identity. Give either party complete control of government, and the Treasury vaults are quickly emptied. Neither Congress nor the President wants to tell the other no. Both are desperate to prove they can "govern"—which means creating new programs and spending more money. But share power between parties, and out of principle or malice they check each other. Even if a President Kerry proposed more spending than would a President Bush, a GOP Congress would appropriate less. That's one reason the Founders believed in the separation of powers.

Consider the record. William Niskanen, former acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, has put together a fascinating analysis of government spending since 1953. Real federal outlays grew fastest, 4.8% annually, in the Kennedy-Johnson years, with Congress under Democratic control. The second-fastest rise, 4.4%, occurred with George W. Bush during Republican rule. The third-biggest spending explosion, 3.7%, was during the Carter administration, a time of Democratic control. In contrast, the greatest fiscal stringency, 0.4%, occurred during the Eisenhower years. The second-best period of fiscal restraint, 0.9%, was in the Clinton era. Next came the Nixon-Ford years, at 2.5%, and Ronald Reagan's presidency, at 3.3%. All were years of shared partisan control.

Bush officials argue that it is unfair to count military spending, but Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan also faced international challenges that impeded their domestic plans. Moreover, if you do strip out military spending and consider only the domestic record, GOP chief executives emerge in an even worse light. In terms of real domestic discretionary outlays, which are most easily controlled, the biggest spender in the past 40 years is George W. Bush, with expenditure racing ahead 8.2% annually, according to Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth. No. 2 on the list is Gerald Ford, at 8%. No. 3 is Richard Nixon. At least the latter two, in contrast to Bush, faced hostile Congresses.

Bandow is not the first libetarian type to make this argument - I've seen several variations on it, going back to those heady days of Libertarians for Dean. The Cato folks have also been fairly non-enamored with Bush for some time, though I suppose one could say that it's the nature of a libertarian to dislike whoever's in power. Be that as it may, it's still striking to see an article like this in a Republican-oriented publication like Fortune. If the meme ever gets picked up by the mainstream press, it could get some traction. Via O-Dub.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 21, 2004 to The making of the President | TrackBack

This is good stuff, and it brings up some sentiments and political philosophies I've held for years. I've always been a fan of divided government and "checks and balances." I recall all the folks who grumbled about it during the Reagan and Bush-41 years, calling it "gridlock."

I like gridlock in most cases; fewer bad laws are enacted and less money is spent. What more could a libertarian ask for, short of Libertarian candidates winning (a virtual impossibility without instant runoff voting or other mechanisms which reduce the need of "lesser of two evils" voting)?

I just wish the Congressional elections and the presidential elections were held a few days apart, so I can see which party took control of Capitol Hill. That way I'd usually feel safe in throwing my support to the opposition party presidential candidate. But when you don't know which party will control either branch, you can't really do that.

Posted by: Tim on April 21, 2004 8:52 AM

Molly Ivins, hardly a libertarian but nonetheless a sound thinker on fiscal matters from a left perspective, has often written that the purported fiscal responsibility of the GOP is one of the great myths she was taught in her youth and had to unlearn later in life. She said once (sorry, I can't lay hands on the column at the moment) that her first non-depressive thought when Ronald Reagan was elected was, "At least he'll balance the budget." Right.

I find it astonishing that many self-classified conservatives are so fixated on stopping government-sponsored social programs that they are willing to ignore (or even embrace) all the other ways Republicans spend money when they are in power. The few genuine old-style conservatives I know, some of whom use the word libertarian (small-L) to describe themselves, do not fall into this trap. But they vote Republican anyway. Why?

It is the real irony of our time that liberals and libertarian conservatives both have good reasons (not always the same reasons) to vote for Democratic candidates. I wish more of those true conservatives would figure out where their own best interest lies, and act accordingly.

Posted by: Steve Bates on April 21, 2004 10:21 AM

"out of principle or malice"

Sounds about right.

Posted by: Linkmeister on April 21, 2004 3:50 PM

Bandow is absolutely right. I've done my own analysis of data from the Tax Foundation and found more empirical support for the conclusion that Republican-led states are NOT more conservative on tax policy than Democratic-led states.

Posted by: Jim Cook on May 24, 2004 1:32 PM

I've been making this argument for years. It's nice to see some supporting research.

The current situation couples large spending increases with tax cuts. As was the case in the early 1960s. The game becomes one of deficit financing.

Another issue I would like to see numbers on is the one that relates to treasury revenue increases as a result of tax cuts. Recently, John Snow has referred to them as "partially self funding".

Checks & Balances is a wonderful thing!

Posted by: TimT on August 14, 2004 5:27 PM