Theoretically, the elemental political choice in a democratic system is between more government or less—more government control over our lives and livelihood, or less; more government spending and programs than the year before, or less; more government power, or less.
In practice, for as long as I can remember, the choice for Americans has been between the party that wants more government (the Democrats, or the party of Big Government) and the party that still wants more government, but a little bit less more (the Republicans, or the party of Big Government Lite). There never really seems to be a choice between a presidential candidate who unequivocally wants Uncle Sam to spend more money next year and one who wants the federal government to spend less. By this I mean “less” as not in a smaller increase, not a phantom D.C.-style budget “cut” from baseline projections; but a real and honest-to-goodness decrease in the actual number of dollars flying out of the U.S. Treasury.
I thought of this not long ago when I attended a conference and heard some of Ron Paul’s supporters wonder how Mitt Romney could appeal to them. Here’s a suggestion: Offer them a genuine opportunity to vote for less government.
This proposal might strike some as radical, since it is outside the realm of the experience of living voters, but we face an unprecedented set of conditions today that make such a fundamental change of direction conceivable, though admittedly not likely.
Romney already has proposed cutting numerous federal agencies and programs that waste federal tax dollars more egregiously than your typical run-of-the-mill federal bureaucracy. Why not attach a dollar figure to his budget cutting? How about campaigning on a nice round number? E.g., “My first annual budget will cap federal spending at $3 trillion.”
I don’t know about you, but $3 trillion for the wasteful, economy-crushing federal leviathan sounds to me like way too much money, but at least it’s a step—a significant step—in the right direction.
The case for such a cut is simple: Under President Obama, we have fallen into a fiscal rut of adding at least $1.2 trillion to the federal debt every year. Does anybody other than an economic illiterate think we can afford such massive floods of red ink? Even if we achieved the ambitious target of cutting federal spending to $3 trillion a year, we still would have an annual deficit larger than any deficit in history before the panic-induced TARP bailout in 2008-9. If those who are on the conservative side of economic issues think it’s “too radical” to propose an annual budget deficit of “only” half a trillion dollars, then perhaps we need to redefine “conservative.”
There is another strong point to be made in support of capping the next fiscal year’s spending at $3 trillion: What were the benefits of Obama’s quantum increase in federal spending? Did it stimulate the economy? Did it bring us prosperity? What did we get for adding $5 trillion more debt during these last three years? Is there a Henry Morgenthau (FDR’s Treasury Secretary) in the Democrats’ ranks today with the candor to admit, as Morgenthau did in 1939, that all the administration’s extra spending hasn’t helped, but has saddled us with a massive debt burden? Romney should forcefully make the case that deficit spending is both wrong and dangerous, and that it’s time for Uncle Sam to live within taxpayers’ means.
Obama talked about various “resets” earlier in his presidency. Well, let’s reset federal spending to what it was when Obama took office and engineered the worst fiscal nightmare in nearly 80 years. For the first time in seemingly forever, voters would have a real choice between voting for more government and voting for less government. That would give the Ron Paul supporters a meaningful stake in this year’s election. It should also appeal to the long-suffering taxpayers who get stuck with the tab for federal profligacy.
One of the Democrats’ greatest political strengths is their unity. They know what they want. They want more, as in, more government. There is no end to how much more government the “progressives” among them want, although most are too cagey to admit that openly. Just ask them where they want government spending to shrink (except on national defense), and you’ll find the list either to be empty or to include a couple inconsequential token cuts offered only as a fiscal fig leaf.
Will the Republican Party ever coalesce around the principle of steadily working for less government as strongly as the Democrats have coalesced around the principle of more? Perhaps not, but I’d sure like to see Gov. Romney surprise everyone and move the GOP in that direction in this prodigiously momentous election year. Give us a real choice, Mitt: More or less?
A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com. Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.