Jonathan Chait

Response To Douthat On Liberal Empiricism, Conservatism Rand-ism, And -- Yes! - The Debt Commission


Ross Douthat says that the reaction to the debt commission proposal has obviated my entire worldview:

One of Chait’s long-running themes is the idea that on size-of-government issues, conservatives are ideologues and liberals are pragmatists: That is, conservatives believe in smaller government as an end unto itself, whereas liberals only believe in bigger government when it’s accomplishing something meaningful for the common good. And one of his secondary themes is that the real “essence” of American conservatism isn’t deficit reduction, but rather “opposition to the downward redistribution of income” whereas liberals, of course, see downward redistribution as precisely the kind of welfare-enhancing thing that government ought to do.

These are both disputable premises. But if we were to concede them, then it suddenly becomes much harder to justify Chait’s claim that the Bowles-Simpson plan is “tilted, overwhelmingly, toward Republican priorities.” Yes, it’s tilted toward spending cuts, and away from tax increases. But look at the way it cuts spending and raises taxes. It means-tests Social Security benefits for high earners and raises the cap on taxable income, while also adding a larger benefit for the poorest seniors. Its hypothetical discretionary spending reductions don’t come from anti-poverty programs, for the most part: They come from cutting the defense budget, cutting the federal workforce, cutting farm subsidies, etc. It raises tax revenue by reducing tax credits and deductions that almost all overwhelmingly benefit the affluent. (This would be especially true in the scenario I’d prefer, in which the child tax credit and the earned-income tax credit stick around.) It would cap revenue at 21 percent of G.D.P., which would be higher than any point in recent American history, and well above the average for the last thirty years. And it does all of this, as Chait himself notes, while assuming that Obamacare the capstone of the liberal welfare state would remain essentially unchanged.

If you accept Chait’s vision of a close-minded, Ayn Randian right and a pragmatic, non-ideological left, you would expect conservatives to be furious over the means-testing and loophole-closing, and liberals to be delighted to have a more redistributionist welfare state. Yet conservative reaction has been muted and respectful (with a notable exception, admittedly) while liberals have been flatly dismissive. Which suggests that maybe, just maybe, American liberalism has more of an ideological commitment to ever-rising government spending than Chait wants to admit.

He is describing my beliefs pretty accurately, but he's not making a persuasive case that they've been undermined. Belief #1 is that the Republican Party is driven far more by opposition to redistribution than by opposition to government per se. That has been the thrust of Republican policy-making on and off since 1980, and unremittingly since 1990. To me, the response on the right vindicates that analysis. After all, the debt commission's report entails a massive rollback of government. It does have some revenue increases, but those are accompanied by enormous cuts in income and corporate tax rates, and it's not clear if the net effect of the changes is to increase or decrease the share of taxes paid by the rich.

If the Republican Party was generally motivated by opposition to government, they would be dancing in the aisles. After all, this is a plan to both slash the size of government by about as much as it's ever been slashed, and slash tax rates. And yet the right's reaction is fairly tepid. The Tea Party movement is opposed. Grover Norquist is on the warpath. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is highly skeptical. I've seen a mostly positive editorial from National Review, but as of Friday evening, the Weekly Standard has written nothing at all. I wrote that the plan is overwhelmingly titled toward Republican priorities, and by that I meant putative priorities. The mixed response to a plan that would represent massive progress toward limited government makes my case for me.

Now, what about the liberals? Here I don't understand Douthat's point at all. My argument is that liberals favor government instrumentally, while conservatives oppose government ideologically. That is to say, conservative ideology -- small-government ideology, not the actual voting behavior of the Republican party -- sees small government as an end in and of itself. If you have a plan to reduce domestic spending by a quarter, almost any conservative would call that a good thing per se. Liberals would not be in favor of any increase in spending per se. It would depend on that spending actually having some positive real-world effect.

Douthat sees liberal dismay at the commission as evidence that liberals harbor "an ideological commitment to ever-rising government" parallel to the conservative worldview. What? Why? Liberals are not opposed to slashing farm subsidies. They're opposed to raising the Social Security retirement age and charging admission at the National Zoo. I agree with them that government ought to let a waitress retire on a modest public pension at 65, and should be able to operate a free world-class zoo in its national capital. That's not the same thing as believing more government per se is good.

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