Friday, September 09, 2005

The revealed preferences of tax-cutting libertarians

M. Yglesias made a good point yesterday on the relationship between the "starve the beast", tax-cutting approach to "shrinking" government, and disaster preparedness funding:

If you wanted to go about trimming the government in a principled way by cutting spending, you'd start off with things that are genuinely pointless (farm subsidies) or else hugely expensive (Medicare). When you try, instead, to attack it purely from the revenue side and hope this will "force" spending cuts in the future, you're all but guaranteeing that the cuts will be focused on programs that just happen to lack powerful constituencies. That means, as we've seen, anti-poverty spending and spending aimed at either forestalling long-term problems or else preventing low-probability ones. That's terrible public policy, but it's the only possible result of the strategy the Republican Party has adopted.

As a result, yes, everyone who's endorsed Bush's various tax cuts -- from Alan Greenspan on down -- deserves their share of the blame. When you support a cut that's not explicitly paid for, you're implicitly supporting spending cuts. And not "spending cuts" in the abstract or the spending that you happen to think should be cut, but the spending that is, in fact, likely to be cut as a result. Which is precisely to say spending on worthy, non-porky infrastructure, and spending on poor people. It's easy to say that the money could be found in less destructive ways, but if it isn't found that way up front, it isn't going to be found that way amidst the murk of the appropriations process.

I'd add that, furthermore, unfunded tax cuts contribute to government debt, which must be paid down eventually with interest. When libertarians vote for politicians who enact tax cuts without matching spending cuts, their "revealed preference" is to use the coercive power of government to extort money from future generations rather than the present one. In this light, it's hard to take such libertarians' anti-government rhetoric very seriously.

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