Patrick Garry
A conservative disappointment over the new tax bill
By Patrick Garry
December 18, 2010

Most Republican members of Congress are celebrating the tax bill signed last Friday by President Obama. This bill provides a two-year extension for the Bush tax cuts, which was vehemently opposed by the left. Indeed, perhaps that explains why the Republicans are so self-congratulatory about the bill, because it was their first significant legislative triumph in nearly a half-decade. But this is one of the traps into which politicians often fall: the trap of thinking that whatever your opponent reviles is something you should celebrate.

Contrary to the current mode of thinking among congressional Republicans, the recently passed tax bill may have been an opportunity wasted — an opportunity to take a strong political stand on the big principles the Tea Party so energetically espoused last fall. To its credit, the Tea Party focused on those truly big issues of American politics relating to the constitutional structure and purpose of government. For the first time in eighty years, the political dialogue involved 'separation of powers' and 'federalism' and 'limited government' and even The Federalist Papers. It was not an election of so-called 'special' or 'single issues.' Under the influence of the Tea Party, it became an election concerning the governmental scheme outlined in the Constitution.

This big-picture focus on political and constitutional principles should have been the congressional Republicans' guidepost during the negotiations leading up to the recent tax bill. It should have been their first opportunity to proclaim that they understood the results of the 2010 election and had abandoned the unprincipled politics that had led to their demise in 2006.

There were at least five conservative principles at issue in the passage of the tax bill. Unfortunately, Republicans stood by about one and a half of those principles.

The first was the belief in economic growth. The tax bill serves this goal. By keeping taxes low, it stays in step with the historic American commitment to economic growth as a way of uplifting the health and prosperity of its people. This goal contrasts with that of the left, which doubts the reality or promise of growth, and which believes that the only way to a healthy society is for government redistribution of the wealth that has already been created.

The second conservative principle underlying the recent tax bill is limited government. As the constitutional framers foresaw, limited government is not only a means by which individual liberty can be preserved, but it is also necessary to maintain the historic identity of America, as a place defined by the free and vibrant nature of its social and cultural order, and not by its government. By supporting lower taxes, Republicans stood by the first half of this limited government principle. Yet at the same time the tax bill was being negotiated, a $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill was being introduced in Congress. This represents the other side of the limited government principle, and many Republicans, especially all those with their special pet-project earmarks tucked away in the spending bill, show no real desire or commitment to stand by this aspect of limited government.

The third principle relevant to the passage of the tax bill involves the unique conservative view of liberty — the view that sets it apart from the liberal view. To conservatives, liberty entails both freedom and responsibility. Anyone can be given an array of rights, but democratic citizens, charged with the duty of self-government, must also possess and exercise responsibility. For without responsibility, freedom simply becomes an undeserved bestowal by some higher power. Only a responsible people can truly deserve freedom in their own right. But the Republicans, in their tax bill posture, did not fulfill this principle of responsibility.

Tax cuts may help preserve individual freedom and limited government; but given the nation's astronomical deficits, how has the tax bill served the present generation's responsibility to refrain from spending money it doesn't have? How has the tax bill fulfilled this generation's responsibility to future generations? How has it lived up to the simple moral principle of paying for one's own obligations?

The fourth conservative principle involved in the tax bill passage is a fundamental Burkean principles — namely, the loyalty to traditional institutions and values. As the left has so often revealed, it has no real allegiance to traditional values and institutions. In fact, one of the defining principles of modern liberalism is its desire to abandon traditional values and institutions, finding them oppressive and unjust. This is why the left has no hesitancy in undermining public faith in America's institutions. And one of the most important institutions is the federal government.

But when that institution is mired in increasing debt, and with little direction as to how to ever escape that debt, how can Americans have any faith or confidence in that institution? And if such an important institution as the federal government loses the faith and confidence of the public, then how can any other social institution hope to preserve any public trust or allegiance? Again, by not addressing the escalating debt of the federal government, Republicans have implicitly participated in this erosion of integrity of one of America's most important institutions.

The fifth conservative principle involved in the recent tax bill is one of the most basic of conservative principles — patriotism. There is much more involved in the notion of patriotism than flag-waving and unquestioned militarism. Patriotism is being faithful to one's homeland. It is a commitment to standing by one's nation, and a dedication to undergo self-sacrifice for the sake of making that nation a great nation. It is a commitment to preserving the moral and political foundations essential to the prosperity of America.

The truth is that America cannot endure as a great nation if it is suffocating in debt. There is no way that the cycle of escalating debt will endure. There is no way that America can be a moral beacon for freedom and peace in the world as long as it ignores the moral aspects of its addiction to debt.

Conservatives believe in the exceptionalism of America. They believe in the greatness of America. They believe that America is worthy of the supreme self-sacrifice. But in its first legislative endeavor since the election, the Republicans displayed no sense of this commitment to the greatness of America.

The Republicans should have done more than merely seek an extension of the Bush tax cuts. They should have done something about America's debt culture. Low taxes are an essential ingredient to America's success. But low taxes in themselves cannot solve all the problems that have accumulated over the decades. Low taxes cannot make up for all the irresponsibility of all the budget deficits of the past.

I would have liked to see some boldness out of the congressional Republicans. I would have liked to see them live up to the principles of the Tea Party. Yes, push for the tax cuts, but also address government spending and debt. Couple the tax cuts with an idea that was debated during the 1970s and that is even more relevant now — the idea of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Make the liberals show their true colors. Allow a pay-off-the-debt tax on the wealthy if, and only if, that tax is coupled with a balanced budget. In this way, the tax is not adding to the growth of government, not violating the principle of limited government, but is an attempt to address America's moral obligation regarding its debt. The tax is not an attempt to redistribute income or inflate an already over-inflated federal government — it is simply a recognition that a great and free nation can never be truly great and free in the shackles of debt.

© Patrick Garry


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Patrick Garry

Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research... (more)


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