Fiscal Ideals and the Role of GovernmentSeptember 11th, 2010 by Lee Eldridge
A few years ago I was exchanging emails with a friend who is a devout liberal. He wrote a very eloquent paragraph about liberalism and what being a liberal meant to him. I wish I had saved it. The paragraph described him well. It also described me well except for one sentence, and I remember it well: “We want to empower the government to help the people.” This is really the core difference between fiscal liberals and fiscal conservatives. For me, I would rewrite this to be: “I want to empower the people to help themselves.”
Strip away the politics. Strip away the political party rhetoric. Strip away the name calling and the finger pointing. What really separates fiscal conservatives, moderates and liberals? Their ideals for the size and role of government.
So how do we measure how conservative, moderate or liberal our government is? By how fast our government is growing. The faster our government grows, the more power they wield. The more control they wield. The more they regulate. The more they redistribute our collective money through social programs. The more they impose their will on our economy. The more liberal they become.
And who controls government growth? Not the President. I have said for years that the President gets too much praise when things go well, and too much criticism when they don’t. Congress is the one who writes our laws and sets our budgets, not the President.
It’s interesting that in just the last fifteen years, we’ve been able to witness three pretty distinct fiscal groups controlling Congress. The fiscal conservatives controlled Congress from the 1994 election through the end of the ’90s. Congress become more moderate from about 2000 until the democrats took over in 2006. And since then a liberal Congress has dramatically increased the size of the federal government.
This list shows the yearly increase in federal expenditures (size of government) calculated in current dollars:
Before I calculated these numbers, I suspected that this was about what I’d find. I would designate anything less than 4% growth as fiscally conservative. Would probably lump 4-8% growth as moderate. And anything above 8% as fairly rapid government expansion. The only number that really sticks out is the 2007 number, but keep in mind that we were beginning to suspect that a recession was coming, and the 2007 budget was written by the 2006 Congress BEFORE the democrats took control following that year’s mid-term election.
Now nothing exists in a vacuum. During this time we’ve had two recessions, 9/11 and two subsequent wars. But do you know that in the last 40 years, the only years we’ve had a budget surplus were from 1998-2001? The economy was strong, unemployment was low, and government growth had been constrained by a fiscally conservative Congress and President Clinton. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
It’s no coincidence that our largest budget deficits coincide with the rapid expansion of our federal government. And it’s no coincidence that this rapid expansion of our federal government is continuing to stifle our economy.
Empower the government or empower the people? I will trust empowering the people every time.
Note: Information about federal outlays provided by the Tax Policy Center.