Patrick Garry
Political realities and the conservative agenda
By Patrick Garry
December 16, 2011

Regarding the current political debate over government tax and spending issues, there are several points on which all conservatives agree.

First, the federal government has grown way too large and is engaged in too many activities that transcend constitutional boundaries. Second, in this unrestrained role, the government is spending way too much money and running up way too large of deficits. Third, this overspending and deficit irresponsibility threaten not only the very integrity and authority of government, but the foundation and health of the American economy.

The conservative position

Conservatives agree that it is morally, economically, and constitutionally wrong for the burden of current government deficit spending practices to fall on future generations. Of course government spending has to be reduced. Of course the scale of government has to be cut back to some economically manageable and constitutionally defensible level. Of course taxes should not be increased at a time when we so desperately need economic growth.

Granted, maybe the astronomical government deficits cannot be cured merely through spending cutbacks; maybe some ambitious reform of the illogical patchwork of corporate tax deductions and credits will be both feasible and necessary in the future; maybe even some tax increases might have to be considered. But the reason most conservatives so steadfastly oppose tax increases to address the budget deficit is that there is such a stark imbalance in our current government revenue/expenditure equation.

Spending is so far out of line with what it should be, it is far beyond any manageable or reasonable level. Possibly some taxes need to be raised or deserve to be raised, as some believe, but that is an issue that should arise only after some meaningful attempt has been made to address the government's out-of-control spending.

This is generally the conservative position — the position that arises from the history of ideological conservatism. But the next question is what should be the political response or outgrowth of this conservative ideology, given the reality in which we currently live.

The political side of ideology

Conservatism, as a political ideology, has the luxury of purity. A political ideology is defined through an intellectual or philosophical exercise. It can be crafted and articulated within the quiet confines of a rustic old library. But the point of a political ideology isn't just to be defined or debated. The point of a political ideology is to influence politics, and this influence has to take place within the political arena, in which political parties and real-life political interests are primary actors.

Political ideologies do not compromise, but political actors and interests occasionally must. As has often been said, the art of politics is the art of compromise. Although the political ideology of conservatism can and should inspire the Republican Party, the concrete strategies and goals of Republican politicians are inevitably shaped by the realities of the political environment. Whereas purity and consistency are the ultimate goal in the philosophical realm, in politics it is results that matter — in politics, purity can be a prescription for failure.

What conservatives must realize in the current tax and budget debate is that their ultimate goal is a long-term goal. The goal is to reverse the New Deal legacy, which set in motion the unlimited growth of government and the attempted subjection of the private sector and free enterprise economy to the mandated controls of government bureaucrats. The goal, in my judgment, is not to escape from the years of 2011 or 2012 with absolutely no tax increases. The goal is to begin the long and arduous process of reversing nearly eighty years of political beliefs and entrenched cultural attitudes about the growth of government.

Conservatives often deride the Eisenhower presidency and its acceptance of the New Deal welfare state. Indeed, that acquiescence looks both wrong and short-sighted in retrospect. But what we cannot know is whether that acquiescence was necessary to preserve conservatism as a legitimate force in American politics, particularly after its near-extinction in the wake of the Great Depression. Likewise, it often seems to contemporary conservatives that a concession to any tax increases would be a gross violation of conservatism.

A political navigation to the long-term goal

But when considering the ultimate long-term goal, perhaps such a concession can be seen as furthering the conservative agenda. If, for instance, one dollar of tax increase produces a five-dollar decrease in government spending, then the long-term conservative goal of limiting government and scaling back its activities is being accomplished. And if government is being cut back for the first significant time in more than eight decades, then perhaps the day will come when whatever tax increases are being implemented now can in turn be scaled back.

The political side of conservatism must recognize the political realities: that a public bred for generations on big government and its addicting entitlements is not ready for an immediate wholesale conservative transformation. The entitlement state and its accompanying deficit spending were built up over eight decades and cannot be reversed overnight. The Left has succeeded in building a culture of dependency on high levels of government spending and deficits. As philosopher David Stove argues, in his rather pessimistic view that restraining big government may be impossible, a quarter of American citizens are either employed by or receive substantial benefits from government, and nearly half of Americans live in a household in which one member receives some kind of government benefit.

The conservative-liberal competition

Conservatives also need to recognize that neither conservatism nor liberalism will likely emerge out of the current political conflict as the sole and exclusive victor. Moreover, conservatives need to recognize that the public does not have a lot of trust in the Republican Party in wake of the Bush presidency, with its escalation of the federal debt, the failure to reform Social Security, the massive overseas military engagements, the increase in federal entitlements through the prescription drug program, the failure to control America's borders, etc.

Conservatism cannot be expected to totally defeat liberalism. In fact, the two creeds are a vital and historic ingredient of American politics, which in turn could not thrive without the presence and influence of both ideologies. As history has demonstrated, neither ideological side will ever defeat the other so decisively as to be able to govern without any concern for the other. Therefore, the goal of conservatism should be to exert the more controlling long-term influence on American political development, to achieve a permanent rightward drift in American politics and culture.

As Irving Kristol observed in 1993, "the welfare state is with us, for better or worse, and conservatives should try to make it better rather than worse." Thus, instead of seeking to end the entitlement state altogether, conservatives can begin by making the public actually pay for all the government benefits it receives — and this more indirect attack on the entitlement state may be the best way to restrain the growth of government. On the other hand, the current Republican opposition to any tax increases whatsoever ends up just shifting the burden onto future generations, thus allowing liberals to continue their resistance to spending cuts, since the current cost of that spending is relatively cheap to current users.

The long-term view

Long-term political victory probably can't result from a full head-on attack against the entitlement state and its deficit spending. What is needed is a patient series of assaults on the flanks.

One of the great conservative virtues is patience. Change, if it is to be permanent and constructive, must usually be a slow and steady change. And one of the great conservative traits is to take the long view of history and change. The entitlement state and its deficit culture have been built up over eighty years. There is no realistic way of reversing it quickly. In this regard, perhaps acquiescing to some modest tax increases — provided they guarantee the ultimate goal of scaling back government — is the best political strategy conservatives can take right now. Conservatives cannot allow themselves to be seen as obstructionists — an image that just plays into the old and self-defeating stereotype of conservatives as rigidly opposed to any change of any kind and wedded to the status quo.

© 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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