Revenge of The Libertarian

by Jonathan Chait | September 24, 2010

Last week, I used Reason editor Nick Gillespie as a case study in the ways that tertiary members of the conservative coalition convince themselves in the face of all evidence that debt-financed regressive tax cuts are a good method of reducing the size of government. Gillespie turns out not to appreciate my commentary. (I am constantly surprised when I get that sort of reaction. One day my subject will reply, "Yes, you're right.") Anyway, Gillespie's reply provides further evidence of his total lack of command of the details of the case, and reliance upon empty slogans to arrive at his conclusion.

I made a few specific critiques of Gillespie's wildly misleading attempt to demonstrate that the Bush tax cuts did not actually reduce government revenue. First, he begins his analysis in 2002, and thus excludes the major drop in revenues that followed the first year implementation of the Bush tax cuts. Gillespie replies, "There's nothing odd about starting with 2002, which is the first year that Bush had full control of the federal budget." Of course, this misses the point. You need to start with a baseline before the policy was implemented in order to demonstrate its effect. That's how you show the effect of a policy. If Bush had passed a law in 2001 abolishing all taxes, and in 2002 revenue was zero, then using 2002 as a baseline would show that Bush didn't cause revenue to decline. See, it started at zero!

Second, I noted that Gillespie omitted 2009, when Bush's tax policies were still in effect. Gillespie replies, "I end with 2009 because, again, that's when Bush gets the heave-ho (and in fact, as I note in the post, 2009's budget includes some last-minute spending by Obama because the government didn't clear everything up before Bush left office)." But of course the chart in question covered revenue, not spending.

Third, I noted that any remotely serious analyst looks at revenue as a percentage of GDP, not straight nominal sums. Gillespie replies, "There's no question that looking at revenue and outlays as a percentage of GDP is an important measure, which is one of the reasons why I do it all the time, such as in this post." Right, but, um, you didn't do it here. And what he fails to acknowledge is not only that % of GDP is an important measure, but nominal sums are not an important measure. It's a tool for the Rush Limbaugh crowd.

Gillespie takes care to note that he is a libertarian, who takes a monotonically anti-government position on every issue, economic, social or foreign, and thus does not fit into a party coalition, which makes him an Independent Thinker, in contrast to me, who mainstream liberal views make me a Party Hack: 

Chait is a reliable Democratic partisan, so he always gets his panties in a bunch whenever anyone anywhere says anything that might imperil the righteousness of his tribal affiliation. ...
So there I am, despite libertarian bona fides up the ying-yang, a conservative dupe (hi, Mom!) for pointing out that George W. Bush's real crime against future generations was not cutting various taxes but for kicking the jams out on any sort of fiscal restraint.

I find that hard-core libertarians make this point nearly every time I get into a dispute with them. I am not sure why. Do followers of Lyndon LaRouche accuse people like Gillespie of being Libertarian party hacks, in contrast to their own idiosyncratic, non-partisan views?

Anyway, to support his fervent claims of non-partisanship, Gillespie repeatedly lashes the Bush administration for over-spending. (How many Republicans do that, huh? Oh, right: all of them.) But this is my point. I noted that federal spending determines the size of government, and debt-financed tax cuts do not reduce the size of government. Gillespie did not address this central critique at all. Indeed, Gillespie's repeated insistence that spending is what matters proves my point. I mean, here he is, bemoaning the Bush administration's fiscal policies, which consisted of passing huge tax cuts without any matching spending cuts. And now here he is advocating for literally the exact same thing. It's not even a new set of tax cuts. It's the Bush tax cuts all over again.

Gillespie winds up, in his final paragraph, by repeating an old Bush slogan: "I do like the idea of people keeping more of their own money." By "letting people keep more of their own money," what he means is, "shifting more of the burden of current government expenditures onto future generations of taxpayers." It's perfectly understandable why somebody of Gillespie's ideological persuasion would want the government to take a much smaller role in public life than it currently does. I'm not disputing that preference. What I'm questioning is how someone like him comes to be convinced that the Republican program of debt-financed tax cuts not matched with spending cuts is a useful, if not ideal, vehicle to achieve that goal. Gillespie's apologetics show that his method of arriving at that conclusion resembles actual thought in only the most superficial way. It's really more of an ideological reflex dressed up as reasoning.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/77916/revenge-the-libertarian