Q&A Friday #72: Why Are We Seeing So Much Spending?

Question: “Why is it so hard to find Republican politicians who truly support and will fight for smaller government? Why is it that no serious candidates are willing to make this a defining issue? They act as if the ‘libertarian’ tag is to Republicans what the ‘liberal’ tag is to Democrats, but is that really the case? It seems like the best we can hope for from even the most popular GOP candidates anymore is for them to grow government at a slower pace than the Dems. Can anything be done to remedy this? Is it just not a high priority for conservatives anymore?” — President_Friedman

Answer: First of all, this question actually represents at least three questions in one. Let me take them one at a time.

Why is it so hard to find Republican politicians who truly support and will fight for smaller government?

Because our political system is geared to reward big spending and punish politicians who are stingy with taxpayer dollars. Everyone may say that they want candidates who are going to reduce the deficit, but then most of those same people will vote for a candidate who brings the pork home to their district or state. In other words, most people want fiscal conservatism in the abstract, not when it may affect their lives.

Moreover, let’s say you kill a wasteful project or vote to cut funding to a pork program: what’s the reaction? “Oh, it’s only a few million dollars.” — and that’s if you’re lucky. Most taxpayers don’t even notice that you saved them money. On the other hand, the people whose project and funds were cut will raise holy hell and in your next election, you’ll be accused of hating fill in the blank (children, puppies, Mother Earth, education) because you voted to cut that money out of the budget.

So, what happens is that politicians learn that there are minimal benefits for them personally when they cut spending and big benefits when they bring home the bacon.

Add to this the growth in acceptability of earmarks, the rising costs of social programs like Medicare, Social Security, etc., and the popularity of triangulation (Steal your opponent’s election issue by doing it first) — and it’s easy to see why we’ve seen such massive spending growth.

To be honest, I don’t think we will make a real long-term dent in the problem until we either put some sort of spending limits into law (like some sort of Balanced Budget Amendment) or we have some sort of major crisis related to our spending habits (A sell off of the dollar by China, for example).

They act as if the ‘libertarian’ tag is to Republicans what the ‘liberal’ tag is to Democrats, but is that really the case?

Yes, the “libertarian” tag is political death. Even though most conservative political junkies disagree with Libertarians on a number of important issues, they do at least tend to listen to and respect their opinions. Most Americans don’t even go that far.

The general public considers Libertarians to be more than a little bit strange (Can you blame them given that the Libertarian party runs some wonky flake who’s way out of the mainstream every 4 years so he can capture 1/2% of the vote?) and so very few Republican politicians would want to publicly identify themselves that way.

It seems like the best we can hope for from even the most popular GOP candidates anymore is for them to grow government at a slower pace than the Dems. Can anything be done to remedy this? Is it just not a high priority for conservatives anymore?

If you read conservative blogs, you will constantly hear conservatives complaining about deficit spending. In fact, it would be fair to say that the three biggest issues for conservatives since the 2004 election have been illegal immigration, the war in Iraq, and spending. Moreover, the GOP’s poor performance on spending issues played a significant role in depressing the enthusiasm of the Republican base in 2006 (and for that matter, it’s still happening).

But again, we go back to the answer to the first question: the system is geared to reward politicians who spend money like drunken sailors and it punishes most politicians who don’t (There are a few exceptions like Jim DeMint, Mike Pence, and Tom Coburn).

On the upside, because of complaining from the conservative base, we have seen the Republicans in Congress, particularly the House Republicans, get more serious about earmarks and spending in this election cycle. They’re not where they need to be yet, but they’re at least moving in the right direction after six years of going the other way.

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