While Tea Party activists have gotten most of the press this election cycle, they haven’t been the ones providing the heavy lifting for right-wing thought and plans. Every candidate needs more than “we’re angry!” if they expect to be elected. On the right that tends to take the form of what we might call Austrian School Economics, which includes the campaign of Tom Emmer for Governor of Minnesota.
I’ll spare you the details of this set of theories – you can follow the link yourself. The short version is that a high tax social safety net diverts wealth away from the vibrant part of the economy, individual choices, thus destroying wealth and ultimately working against its own aims by making everyone poorer. You don’t hear about this philosophy too directly because its adherents know it’s a real snooze and its detractors honestly don’t seem to understand where it’s coming from. I’d like to do my best to explain why this theory doesn’t work.
Integrated Economies (with Scale): The basic economic theory operating on the right is that nearly all government should be treated as waste. This neglects a number of ways in which the need for a service is clearly universal and benefits from large scale. For example, an expensive road project has the potential to save considerably more money in reduced repairs to cars and less time wasted on the road dodging potholes at low speeds. Similarly, universal education may increase the overall productivity of an entire society by improving skills and reducing criminal activity – and that investment may be far too difficult for many people to make on their own.
There is nothing wrong with evaluating what government does based on its return to the people. We all know that you can never perform this kind of calculation perfectly and that there are some things, such as taking care of the very sick or very old, that a civilized people simply have to do. As flawed as a calculated return is, however, it at least opens up a dialogue that is currently closed by the “all government is a drain” rhetoric.
Lack of Rigor: The Austrian School is famous for telling people that you simply can’t do experiments on economies – so you have to look at it from an individual and logical perspective based on choice. The fun comes in Game Theory, a somewhat rigorous scientific approach to choices that often goes against Austrian dogma – but let’s leave that aside. If we were really to believe that cutting taxes would, over the long haul, generate more income for us we should have a few solid examples of how this should play out. There has to be some kind of roadmap for what will happen and how we can evaluate it.
That doesn’t happen. We’ve been cutting taxes for many years in our state and no one has ever tried to show how it will benefit us in any detail. They haven’t even tried to look back and run through the details of how it’s been working. Without any kind of roadmap or detail I think that wise voters have to see this as a kind of cult and reject it out of hand as nothing more than (CowPuckey).
Political Reality: At the Federal level we’ve had a solid 30 years of this philosophy forming at least a major part of the Republican philosophy. This party held the Senate, House, and Presidency from 2001 to 2007. Did our federal government actually become any smaller in this period? Did our budget actually shrink? The short answer is that adherents of this philosophy tend to have a terrible track record of doing what they say they will.
Granted, at the state level the Republicans have never had even close to full control of the system. But it should be obvious that Pawlenty has been the most powerful governor we’ve had in a long time, thanks in no small part to DFL disorganization. We’ve seen tax decreases, yes, but without equal cuts in actual spending – and a terrible imbalance has resulted that was solved by shoving K-12 expenses into an IOU due out in the future. The political reality is very stark – for all the hardline talk, government only grows. The lack of engagement inherent in this philosophy has precluded any real consensus building and clearly worked against any kind of real implementation.
There are three solid reasons why this philosophy doesn’t work, but they all boil down to one real problem: lack of connection to reality. The heart of right-wing economics these days is a rigid theory that rejects any need to be proven and does not allow discussion, denying the traditions of our democratic republic. That’s why it needs to be rejected.