In her March 16th column in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan asks an intriguing question: “Could a President Kerry have spent more than President Bush? How?”
We require that the president and our representatives in Washington be “caring” nowadays, “involved,” “concerned.” We like it when they cry in public. We want to know what they will do about everything if they get elected: the price of prescription drugs and gasoline, reading scores in our elementary schools, domestic violence, the condition of our roads, the impact of video games on our children. The line between federal and state and local responsibilities seems to have become an irrelevancy, once the election campaigns begin. Like it or not, the country wants problem-solvers, not champions of freedom and local initiative not on the issues that matter to them.
In New York City, the local talk shows have great fun with how Sen. Chuck Schumer can be counted on to pop up on television in a press conference on Saturdays usually a slow news day with a problem that he proposes to solve for the American people with a new federal initiative. It can be anything: the content of medicines, educational testing procedures, gas prices, utility bills, voter registration issues. He is there, every Saturday, with something “deplorable” that must be solved by Washington. Nothing is too small, too inconsequential, too local. But it works. The man keeps getting elected. New York’s voters think he “cares.”
Noonan: “What are the implications for our country if spending levels continue to grow at their current pace? What are the implications for the Republican Party if it continues to cede one of the pillars on which it stood? Did compassionate conservatism always mean big spending?”
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)
Let’s not go overboard: She is not suggesting that Kerry would have been better for the economy than Bush. She is convinced that Kerry would have raised taxes, in addition to putting us in debt. And the case can be made that those tax increases would have put a damper on economic growth, thereby increasing the federal deficit.
But Noonan’s disappointment with Bush’s spending is unqualified: “I believe it is fair to say most Republicans did not think George W. Bush was motivated to run for the presidency for the primary reason of cutting or controlling spending. But it is also fair to say that they did not think he was Lyndon B. Johnson. And that’s what he’s turned into.” Ouch.
She writes of a gathering of conservatives last summer, where she heard the quip that Bush “spends like a drunken sailor except the sailor spends his own money.” She states flatly, “If I’d thought he was a big-spending Rockefeller Republican that is, if I’d thought he was a man who could not imagine and had never absorbed the damage big spending does I wouldn’t have voted for him.” Ouch, again.
Noonan is not alone in this criticism. An article on government spending in the New York Times on March 17th quoted conservative commentator Bruce Bartlett: “The problem we have had on the budget all along is a lack of adult supervision on the part of the White House. You can’t blame members of Congress for looking out for their parochial interests. It is the president’s responsibility to look out for the national interest.”
Republicans can’t escape this question by blaming the deficits on the war in Iraq. Even if we were to take the war out of the equation the increase in government spending under Bush and the Republican congressional majority has been staggering. If anything, the war in Iraq should have given the Republicans in power a rationale for cutting domestic spending. Instead, they expanded federal aid programs at a record rate. Noonan quotes from an analysis by USA Today: Enrollment in federal programs increased 17% between 2000 and 2005, even though the population increased by only 5% during that period. Spending on these programs was up an inflation-adjusted 22% since 2000, to $1.3 trillion.
You can see why political conservatives are upset with Bush. But what is the Catholic angle to all this? The social encyclicals require us to seek public policies that promote social justice and the common good, but they do not tell us where to draw the line on taxation and public spending to achieve that goal. A Catholic free-market advocate is free to make the case that less taxation and government involvement in the economy will spur economic growth and job creation, thereby opening the door for the poor to advance themselves in a meaningful way, rather than relying on government hand-outs.
But the social encyclicals also leave the door open for an advocate of the European welfare-state model to press the case that life is better in countries such as France and Sweden than in the US, in spite of the high taxation and high level of government involvement in the economies of those countries; that greater social justice can be realized with a lower GDP and greater redistribution of the nation’s resources through government programs.
Put otherwise: The principle of subsidiarity tells us we should assign to the central government only those responsibilities that lower levels of government and private associations cannot handle, but does not tell us how to determine when that happens. That is left for us to debate in good conscience as citizens of the countries where we live.
That said, Noonan’s concerns for the deficits incurred by the Bush administration and the Republican Congress raise questions that we cannot brush under the rug. The papal encyclicals warn of the dangers of socialism. The principle of subsidiarity was designed to protect individual and property rights from unjust government incursions, especially an expanding central government. There are such things.
Critics on the right have been warning since the 1960s that the United States faces “creeping socialism.” The fact that a Republican president, with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, is expanding government spending at a record rate may mean that we have crossed a line that will make the threat of a socialist future a reality. If you protest that they had no choice to do otherwise because the voters will turn against them if they make serious cuts in spending, you are underscoring the point. One cannot help but be struck by the seemingly ineluctable drift toward an ever greater concentration of economic power in the hands of the central government and by the fact that the American people seem to want it that way, all our protestations about big spenders in Washington notwithstanding. The Republicans who have put us into so much debt were elected as tax-cutters and advocates of smaller government.
What is to blame? Two things seem to have caused this turn of events. One is the fact that we are becoming a society that no longer feels threatened by higher federal taxes. Why not? Because most of us don’t pay them. The latest IRS figures indicate that the top 5% of our population pays about 53% of all federal income taxes. The top 10% pays nearly 65%. The top 50% pays over 96%. This means that we now have half our country’s population paying virtually no federal income taxes. That’s a pretty big voting bloc. Those folks don’t fear expanding government programs. They are likely to live off them.
The other change is a change in attitude about what we expect from the central government. I don’t know when it started, but you can take it for granted that the man-and-woman-in-the-street these days wants their elected federal officials to “do something” about our societal problems. That’s the common denominator, the knee-jerk reaction to everything. Ronald Reagan was able to attract voters with the promise that he would get the federal government off “our backs.” It is hard to see that line selling anymore.
Can anyone picture a congressman proclaiming that he was not going to seek more federal money for his state’s infrastructure spending as a matter of principle; that he was going to let the federal dollars go to neighboring states with big spending politicians instead? Or a presidential candidate successfully running on the promise that he was going to dedicate himself to making sure Washington no longer “meddled” in local educational, poverty and medical matters; that he was going to keep federal taxes low by requiring local governments to deal with these things? Imagine what would happen to that candidate on Oprah’s show. Oprah would be aghast at his lack of compassion. The audience would be appalled.