The Tea Party: Deficits and Defense

New Congressional members of the Tea Party think they have have the answer to the country’s ills: less overall federal spending and a strong commitment to defense.These are, of course, among the core values of the conservative and libertarian wings of the Republican Party and have been for a long time. That wing, dating in the modern (i.e. post-World War II) environment to and originally associated with Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) was dominant immediately after the war but was eclipsed when Dwight D. (“Ike”) Eisenhower won the GOP nomination from Taft in 1948, sending this wing into minority status with the GOP until the Reagan years.

The refrain of those whom the Tea Party seek to represent is straightforward: their mantra is minimal government, which translates into a minimum involvement of the government (especially the federal governmen) in the lives of citizens, which in turn means a government that is comparatively cheap to operate and thus does not require large taxes. So far so good, and while one can agree of disagree with this philosophical position and its operational consequences (e.g. minimal government services for various, mostly disadvantaged, citizens), it is at least internally coherent.

The philosophical problem is the other part of the rightist agenda, a commitment to a robust defense. Admittedly, what is robust to one person may seem either paltry or bellicose to another, but a strong defense means, operationally, a commitment to a large federal monetary commitment to national defense in its various aspects and guises. Once again, one can argue with the wisdom of this formulation, but it is at least coherent. Essentially, the Tea Party and its friends are arguing that defense spending is one of the relatively few worthwhile things the government does for the citizenry.

In the current atmosphere, the two operational consequences of this position fly in one another’s face. The generally dim libertarian view of government generally leads Tea Party activists in the 112th Congress to argue for cuts in the federal budget; their pro-defense position equally argues that defense cuts should be spared from the budgeter’s axe. In specific terms, they call for a $100 billion reduction in overall government spending this year, from which they would exempt the defense budget. Were Ike to return for a day, he would have a puzzled, possibly bemused look on his face. Most likely, he would agree that government does and spends too much; he would equally likely not let defense off the hook for bearing its part of whatever spending cuts are imposed.

The Tea Party’s position may be coherent, even philosophically attractive, in the abstract, but it does not hold up very well in the real world. It begins from at least an implicit premise that there is a lot of “waste, fraud, and abuse” (to borrow the 1980s phrase) in the non-defense budget but, implicitly once again, that there are not parallel examples of wasteful spending in the defense sector. That is probably a false premise. There may be (almost certainly is) some waste in non-defense spending like some of the more egregious earmarked projects, but previous assaults have removed most of this “fat,” leaving mostly muscle to trim; at the same time, there is without question wasteful spending in the defense area: the plush settings of many American military bases and the expense of a large number of marginally justifiable overseas basescomes to mind immediately. Spending hundreds of billions on two entirely stupid, unproductive, unwinnable, and unnecessary wars comes even more to mind.

The Tea Partiers are, of course, free to believe and advocate whatever they want–it is still a free country. Their contribution to a meaningful national dialogue, however, could stand a bit of a reality check. It is well and fine to advocate what I would argue is a hopelessly bloated defense budget on the ground that keeping us safe is the government’s primary obligation. It is naive, and probably hypocritical, to argue that filling the defense budget trough to the rim can be paid for by cutting “non-essential” spending elsewhere. To repeat an item in the last entry, over half the discretionary budget is in defense, and it follows that defense should belly up to the bar (it does have a considerable belly, after all) and do its part.

The Tea Party says its goal is to balance the federal budget, but that it wants to do so without raising taxes (thereby increasing government). Yeah, right! This is the Jack Spratt approach: Jack Spratt (the non-defense budget) will eat no fat, and his wife (the defense budget) will eat no lean. The result: skinny Jack, fat spouse. But it is still a lovely couple wallowing in debt, because, at the risk of seeming a nag on the subject: THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT BUDGET CANNOT BE BALANCED WITHOUT LARGE CUTS IN DEFENSE SPENDING.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There is a way to balance the budget without cutting defense spending: HIGHER TAXES. To argue you can do one of these things (cut government and balance the budget) without the other (cutting the defense budget) or raising taxes is a chimera. No, make that a conscious lie that everyone who makes the argument realizes unless they are stupid or delusional. Ike knew this, and he said so. Tea Party activists who deny it are being inconsistent philosophically (they do not stand alone in this regard), and their continued advocacy of policies that do not address the very issues they publicly endorse should raise questions about the assertion on their bumper stickers: “Tea Party Patriot.”

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