Today’s word of Republican capitulation on the “clean” debt increase might be defensible as don’t-rock-the-boat political strategy for 2014, but it’s pretty sad from a philosophical standpoint. All the Beltway solons agree that compelling even the tiniest bit of spending restraint in exchange for another debt hike is impossible. It would be a costly political conflict leading to shutdown brinksmanship, said to be a sure loser for the party of small government, to the extent Republicans can still lay claim to that identity.
In other words, the flabby bulk of irresponsible, insolvent government has been fully weaponized. Its bloat is leverage it can use to get bigger, without even serious discussion of restraint. We can’t even discuss concessions in exchange for further debt any more. Huge deficits are a permanent disfigurement of the American system; half a trillion bucks in the hole is as good as it’s ever going to get, and that latest CBO report – the one that gave us the flop-sweat Democrat meme of “job lock” to sell us on the virtue of rising unemployment – made it clear that trillion dollar deficits are coming back in a big way. Never mind “job lock.” Who’s going to save us, and our children, from debt lock?
Unlike the asinine “job lock” talking point, debt lock is very real. It’s the elimination of choice, the destruction of possibility, the narrowing of options. We are writing a smaller destiny for our children. Just as we’re no longer permitted to even discuss the possibility of fiscal restraint in tandem with debt ceiling increases, so there will be many topics swept completely off the table for voters to come. Their sphere of private independent action will be radically smaller, to be sure, but their political options will grow smaller as well.
The Left asks us to view “freedom” almost entirely in the context of what we’re allowed to vote for – even the most mandated, regulated, taxed, and regimented society is still nominally “free” as long as the people have something to say at the ballot box. Well, the list of things they’re allowed to vote on grows dramatically smaller. We are loudly informed that people who were of voting age in 2008 were the final generation of Americans who would be allowed to vote on the disposition of their health care. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we haven’t gotten there already, we’re very close to the point where deficit math will push all talk of tax relief beyond the pale forever, until the entire system crashes.
It used to be commonly said that “generations yet unborn” faced this future of diminished possibilities, but that’s no longer true. Children alive today, even young people very close to voting age, are about to learn what taxation without representation really means. They will own less of the world they are about to inherit from us.
Allowing the government to run big deficits and unlimited debt was a huge mistake. It’s one thing to authorize emergency spending for an existential crisis, with serious anticipation of repayment. But our permanent debt load is an expression of power, a statement of our government’s absolute supremacy over its citizens. We give the government 2.5 trillion dollars of our money to take care of its vital duties; it sneers in our faces and spends a trillion more.
Budgeting is the most elementary act of restraint. It’s a simple concession that priorities must be balanced – another $10 for entertainment means $10 less for food. The process is somewhat humbling, as I’m sure most readers of these words will agree. It’s tough to conclude you simply don’t have the money to do something, or make hard trade-offs between important spending priorities.
Liberation from that restraint was the primal indulgence of the Leviathan State. The simplest authority citizens can exert over their rulers was cast aside. It doesn’t matter how much funding the public chooses to allocate for government; the Ruling Class does what it wills, restrained only by a mild reluctance to indulge itself so carelessly that the financial system collapses entirely. That’s a very different set of parameters than true budgeting would impose.
All the rest of Big Government’s arrogance rises from the shards of the fiscal genie bottle that no longer contains it. There is no need to disappoint one dependent constituency in order to satisfy another. There are no choices between guns and butter. There is no need to approach the sovereign people of America, hat in hand, and humbly beg them for more funding to accomplish some aspect of the Ruling Class agenda. Our rulers take, and we give on the installment plan. Everything is “free” today. The current aristocrats will be safely retired when the bills arrive. It’s much easier to present those bills as an inescapable destiny written long ago – which is precisely how Barack Obama talks about raising the debt ceiling, with his favorite metaphor of deadbeat diners skipping out on the check – than it would be to honestly present the American people with the cost of some proposed plan, and ask them to pony up immediately.
It might be pointless to talk about any other form of government restraint, as long as Washington can spend billions of dollars more than we have authorized it to. It spends that imaginary money to increase budget baselines and hire people who become both reliable voters for bigger government, and useful hostages against reform. If conservative tradition is sometimes caricatured as the dead hand of the past, then spendthrift liberalism is the enslavement of the future. You’ll notice the “dead hand of the past” has a far lighter, gentler touch.