What it means to be a political conservative has drastically changed throughout the course of American history. The meaning in a political context has even shifted from the defining proclamations of Barry Goldwater in The Conscience of a Conservative. Arguably a seminal pamphlet in defining conservative values in the 20th Century. I personally feel that conservatism much like any other body of ideas has its advantages and drawbacks. One value of conservatism that has been slowly eaten away by political opportunism has been fiscal responsibility. While not personally a conservative, this is a conservative value I am fully on board with.
The irony is that in the modern era of the 21st century even purported conservative politicians are not fiscally conservative. Making this virtue a relic of a bygone era. Profligate spending was a policy fixture of both Bush administrations and even prevalent in the Regan administration. It appears as if President Trump will also follow suit with veering away from budgetary constraints.
Interestingly enough Libertarian/ Conservative icon the economist, Milton Friedman, felt as if he had found the solution. This remedy is referred to as a Starve the Beast policy. Which is based upon a rather linear concept, simply cut taxes as this will discourage spending. Certainly, a novel postulation that appears to have been underneath our noses this entire time. Does this theory hold water upon the scrutiny of empirical analysis? This question has been highly debated among scholars of all stripes. Not to mention fiercely defended by Friedman-fanboys. As brilliant as Friedman was it does not make him infallible. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that Friedman was dead wrong about the overall impact of the Starve the Beast method of cutting spending.
One fact that should be noted is that while many conservative Republicans have anointed Regan with the status of a demigod, this is to some extent a shallow perception. The beloved cherub of the conservative shrine was not the most fiscally responsible president. It turns out while Regan may have cut taxes, he actually increased spending. These findings represented in a 2009 study published by the Cato Institue. The study found overall that cutting government tax revenue created the illusion of decreased spending. A firm nod to my previous blog entry addressing Fiscal Illusion. Overall, based on the result of the cited research it does not appear as if the data backs up Friedman’s claims.
From the standpoint of science, replication of results is the validation of the data obtained. It veers away from the potential of findings being an anomaly caused by sampling error. Thankful for our friends over at the Cato Institue have conducted further studies pertaining to Starve the Beast policies. Researcher Michael J. New conducted a regression study of the relationship between expenditures and taxation from 1981-2005. It was found that even when adjusted for wartime spending, limiting tax revenue did not effectively curtail discretionary spending. Substantiating the previous research of William Niskanen.
It is excellent that these studies have exposed the numerical shortcomings of simply cutting taxes. However, what is causing the profligate spending to continue even when tax revenue is decreased? Now it is time to applaud the advocates of the Austrian School of Economics and Public Choice Theory for acknowledging the role of inflation. If the printing presses are running the possibility of funding without direct tax dollars is on the table. This is a massive blindspot in Milton Friedman’s thinking, but an understandable one. Utilizing inflation for financing expenditures is circuitous means of procuring funding. Not an obvious means of generating revenue. Also, it is important to remember he was a proponent of monetarism making him less apt to question the government’s role in controlling the currency supply. However, considering the disastrous economic effects inflation can bring it is something that should always be questioned.