Sunday, May 15, 2011

Jacobins in the GOP?

One might note within many ostensibly conservative discussions about the debt ceiling a strain that comes far more from Leon Trotsky than from Edmund Burke. One of the principal tenets of Burkean conservatism is the importance of avoiding Armageddon: crises are best held at arms' length, and revolution should be the measure of last resort.

Not raising the debt ceiling now could very likely be Armageddon: it would immediately force the government to spend no more than it took in in taxes. In 2010, tax revenue covered not even 60% of federal spending, so over 40% of the federal budget would have to be cut NOW to make up for it. Unemployment benefits---ended. Air Force jets---grounded. You need heart surgery, grandma? Maybe next year.

Not raising the debt ceiling would not necessarily lead to defaulting on the debt: the US could still make its interest payments. However, some prominent Republicans are now suggesting that even defaulting on the debt wouldn't be that bad. Since the election of George Washington, the federal government has never defaulted. Is it really worth throwing that legacy away to make a political point? Defaulting on the debt would very likely lead to higher interest rates and make the debts of private individuals as well as those of many governments even more onerous. An outright default could wreak havoc on the domestic and global financial systems.

Such an outcome could be a sure way to reduce the Republican party to the party of the 30% and make it radioactive for years to come.

And that political price would be by far the least problematic result of that scenario for allies of traditional liberty and conservatism. Deficit spending may perhaps be an important reason why we have not seen turmoil in the streets a la Greece, Egypt, and the waning days of the Roman republic. In terms of employment, this is the worst economy since the Great Depression. The social safety net is being strained in extraordinary ways, and the sudden cuts required by not raising the debt ceiling could be the equivalent of cutting it away. With those cuts to institutions that people have built their lives around (such as Social Security), a huge cross-section of this nation could erupt in rage.

Mob outrage is almost the polar opposite of classical American conservatism, and, if we did come to such public turmoil, there is no guarantee that the result would be a more economically free society.

One realizes that much of the debate over the debt ceiling is an exercise in partisan cynicism. Every Democrat opposed raising the debt ceiling in 2006, while almost every Republican (including the leading opponents of raising the debt ceiling) supported the raise in 2006. Meanwhile, almost every single House Republican has de facto pledged to raise the debt ceiling by voting for the Ryan budget, which gives us trillions of dollars in more debt over the next few years. House and Senate Republicans overwhelmingly backed nearly a trillion dollars in tax cuts and stimulus spending at the end of 2010. The premise of those tax cuts and stimulus spending was that they would push the economy along, even though those measures will, in the short term at least, add to the debt. By their votes, Congressional Republicans have declared that this nation can handle more debt.

The whole debate over raising the debt ceiling is also, in part, a game of chicken: Republicans want to force more spending concessions and potential entitlement "reforms" from Democrats. But something of the complexity of entitlement reform is perhaps the last thing that should be rushed; Republicans should not want entitlement reform to replicate Obamacare (and other measures), when Congress is voting on unread and uncomprehended bills.

Ironically for authentic opponents of debt, not raising the debt ceiling and defaulting on the debt could make the federal debt that much worse. One of the driving forces for federal debt over the past few years has been the poor economy: the economic slow-down, with its resulting decrease in tax revenue and encouragement of government spending on unemployment benefits and so forth, is probably the single biggest contributing factor to our current deficit. The poor economy is an immediate dagger aimed at the fiscal heart of this nation.

In order to keep from hitting the debt ceiling, Republican leaders may find it wise to offer their support for a relatively small increase of the debt ceiling (say a few hundred billion or even a trillion dollars). Classical conservatism teaches that, sometimes, if you can succeed in delaying a crisis enough, your prudence can ensure that there will be no crisis at all. Sometimes that strategy fails (witness the Civil War), but it can often succeed. And even if delay fails, sometimes that delay allows you time to gather your forces to help you cope with the eventual crisis; at least the Civil War didn't happen until the union was strong enough to weather such a war. Many of the trappings of the current federal government are sustainable, especially with modest long-term reforms. The long-term fiscal situation of the nation may be somewhat scary, but it can be improved. Kicking the can down the road isn't always a bad thing, not if it gives you time to solve the problem. From a classical conservative perspective, inciting a crisis now in order to avoid a potential crisis in the future may be a bad trade.

(Crossposted at FrumForum)


  1. If you kick this can down the road, you will get a much larger crisis down the road. The sad thing is that the entitlement culture has rendered the problem unsolvable politically. But, not to worry, the solution will come, it will just be forced down our throats later. Then see what the mobs do.

    This is not going to be pretty, and the longer it runs, the worse it will be.

  2. I think we are all ready for mobs in the street after this presidency. Just go ahead and cut everything back to match the revenues coming in and let the chips fall where they may. Any other course of action is irresponsible and just makes the problem worse when it eventually has to be dealt with.

    We got here by people kicking the can down the road and pretending there is no problem. The only way to solve it is to do so all at once because any agreement made by this president or this Congress will not be adhered to by the next one. Such things never are. It is either all or nothing.

    And our interest rates damn well should be higher. US dollars now come in two-ply rolls due to our easy money policy and it is impossible to find a bond that will give a return that matches the 10% inflation is running at.

  3. Your commentary would carry more weight if you did not include the flawed equivalence between not raising the ceiling and defaulting on the debt. The former does not imply the latter. Prioritize debt service as 'must pay' and you avoid default.