Bless me, Father, for I have sinned: I have succumbed to the Three Deadly Republican Spending Rationalizations.
I'm not alone, you know -- seems that legions of congressional Republicans have joined me in my shame. I'm old enough to remember when "rock-ribbed Republican" was a synonym for green-eyeshade style spending restraint. But I'm young enough to know that, when it comes to government spending these days, the two major parties only offer you a choice as to which group of drunken sailors will be tearing through your tax dollars like a paycheck after six months underway.
I can't claim ignorance, Father. In Republican school I mastered all the basic Republican commandments: Thou Shalt Not Criticize a Fellow Republican in Public. Thou Shalt Not Be Soft on Crime. Honor Thy Elders by Waiting For Thy Turn Before Running for Major Office. I confess that I have been complicit in the violation of the most ancient Republican commandment: Thou Shalt Spend as Little Taxpayers' Money as Possible, and Thou Shalt Cut Needless Spending Always and Everywhere. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
My handy Republican catechism tells me that The Three Deadly Republican Spending Rationalizations are:
1) "This program will be expensive, wasteful, and corrosive to the virtues that make a free society function, but it's popular, and we need it in order to keep the Republican majority."
2) "This program will be expensive, wasteful, and corrosive to the virtues that make a free society function, but it's necessary in the name of national security."
3) "This program will be expensive and wasteful, but it will actually improve the virtues that make a free society function, because it uses the power and affluence of a large central government to subsidize independence, self-discipline, decentralization, and the rejection of the welfare state mentality."
After much prayer and discernment, I am pretty sure that I've got the first rationalization licked. Is there anyone left who really believes that yet another pork barrel project will buy love for the Republican Congress? Democrats are ever so much better at spending big fetid steaming piles of taxpayer money, and Republicans can't indulge in such shameless spending without looking like bigger hypocritical nincompoops than usual. The race to installment plan socialism is a race that Republicans can't win.
But Father, the second rationalization tempts me badly. Why, just the other day I was composing a paean to the joys of telecommuting. I discussed all kinds of advantages that would ensue if employees could work from their homes for just one day per week: reduced gas usage, reduced stress on the national transportation infrastructure, less money wasted on sundry business expenses (dry cleaning, shoe shining, lunches at restaurants, etc.), lower day care costs, and less micromanagement. As I found myself writing the words "...the kind of project that the federal government should gently encourage," I realized to my horror that I was writing the same self-indulgent pinko twaddle that I routinely mock when I read it from other writers. Government subsidies to support my own wacko preferences and nutty save-money-in-the-long-run schemes? Preposterous! But just as my finger drifted toward the delete key, a terrible sinful thought invaded my mind: perhaps my plan could be justified as a sop to national security. Yeah, that's the ticket! We've got to get people out of the cities in order to reduce the casualty count for the next 9/11. And what's more, those surviving workers would be better able to support America's economy after a devastating attack. Within mere minutes, an inane argument for some penny-ante social engineering scheme became a patriotic duty to save lives -- and all tarted up in the language of fighting terrorism, no less. The road to a bloated Department of Homeland Security budget is paved with just such good intentions.
But this casuistry isn't the worst sin, Father. The worst sin is the third rationalization -- the belief that Big Program X will be the Trojan horse that defeats the welfare state. It's the program that will destroy the free market in order to save it. It's the gamble that, unlike every other expensive federal action, this expensive federal action will be the kerosene that douses the flames of oversized indifferent bureaucracies. Republicans fall prey to this temptation all the time. Yes, the No Child Left Behind Act is expensive, and intrusive, and top-heavy with federal direction -- but it introduces those precious vouchers everywhere, like little time bombs of freedom waiting to explode in the faces of the teacher unions. Yes, the federal money directed toward religiously oriented charities is not the sort of spending that would make Ayn Rand smile -- but when the public sees that religious charities are more effective than those lousy public bureaucrats, the support for a big federal welfare state will decline.
It's the political equivalent of drinking yourself back sober.
Has this rationalization ever been true? Has any big government plan genuinely led to an increase in national virtue, or a decrease in government intrusiveness? Even the most "successful" big government projects -- the GI Bill, the national highway system, federally subsidized housing loans -- have mixed records in this regard. And the least successful projects have been wretched disasters. Oh, sin, how do you trick us into making the same mistakes, again and again?
Now, Father, there's a reason I'm making my confession here and not with Father Thomas Paine over at Our Lady of the Wholly Autonomous Libertarianism. Conservatives don't reject out of hand the possibility that a big government program might support virtuous lives in a free society. But the dice are stacked so heavily against such a program that it hardly seems worth the bother to look for one. Once, conservatives and libertarians alike knew that big government programs create lethargic bureaucracies that evict common sense and personal insight in the name of common standards and impersonal administrative inertia. We knew that even the best-intentioned programs inculcate an unvirtuous reliance upon the beneficence of Uncle Sucker, even as they create unforeseen and undesirable changes in society that the cleverest of policy makers cannot predict. Even the most desirable of conservative goals will degenerate into a fiasco if given a stodgy centralized department, an outsized budget, and a dubiously-Constitutional federal mandate with which to cram that goal down the throats of the states. But the Republican Party started to forget these lessons when the keys to the kingdom fell into its lap.
This, Father, is the Republicans' dilemma. The modern Republican lives in a Washington he hates -- it's too rich, too powerful, too centralized, too self-important. And yet the modern Republican wields all the power at the command of this bloated monstrosity. He sees the nail of big government, and he wants to hit it with the nearest available hammer -- more big government. I'll just cut off the head of one more Hydra, he thinks, and this time it won't sprout two more heads, because I have a clever plan. The modern Republican is Gandalf, having won the primary against Frodo, and fidgeting with the Ring of Power in his palm. So much good I could do, so many people I could help, if I only slipped it on, and besides, you just know that Saruman would wear the Ring if his party took Congress...
For these and my other political sins, Father, I ask for the voters' mercy. What's that? My penance is to abolish earmarking and to make the abolition of wasteful spending an immediate legislative priority? You want me to renew the push for the elimination of superfluous federal departments in order to devolve real power to the states? And you want me to take up the fight yet again for private Social Security investment funds in lieu of compulsory participation in the world's biggest Ponzi scheme? You actually want me to act like small government is a moral good unto itself, and not just a means to the end of a strong economy?
Aw, geez, Father, couldn't I just say some Hail Condis instead?
Douglas Kern is a lawyer and TCS Daily contributing writer.