Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fiscal Conservatism is for Losers

As the second week of the shutdown grinds on, I thought some data collected by DePaul professor Wayne Steger for a project on hypocrisy in ideological appeals might be informative.  Wayne scanned the database of the National Review, an iconic conservative magazine/website, for terms indicating interest in fiscal restraint: "balanced budget," "cut spending," and "cut taxes." The results suggest that the conservative publication's interest in fiscal restraint peaks when Democrats hold unified control of government and wanes during divided or Republican control of government.

Similarly, "cut spending" tracks the electoral fortunes of the Republican Party:

And budget reductions are not necessarily linked with calls for less taxation, which also included a peak around the election and first year of G.W. Bush.

One explanation for these trends is that balancing the federal budget is not a genuine priority of conservative opinion-makers. Rather, it is a set of arguments trotted out while the opposing party is making budgetary decisions (presumably favoring Democratic constituencies), then shelved when Republicans are directing federal spending (including tax cuts) toward their constituents.

An alternate explanation is that Republicans are such effective custodians of the public purse that the National Review is satisfied with their fiscal probity while they hold power. This is not consistent with budgetary outcomes during this period:


  1. I've been reading The Idea of a Party system by Richard Hofstadter. Here is an interesting line he wrote to describe how the Albany Regency operated as they developed the first modern party in NY State: "Distaste for Federalists and their principles became more important as a device than as a conviction." p247

  2. Loath as I am to defend the National Review, I'm not sure this is quite fair, since a "Balanced Budget amendment" -- a patently stupid idea, btw -- was part of the Contract with America in 1994 and revived in 2010. Wasn't discussed much otherwise.

  3. KcM, I hear what you are saying...the BBA fell off the Congressional agenda. But that's kind of the point: the GOP held the majority in one or both chambers of Congress from 1997 to 2006 and could have put it on the agenda. And the National Review (and other conservative media) could have heckled them constantly to schedule a vote...IF they were serious about the proposal for its own sake. That's not an unrealistic expectation: for the last half-century, the New York Times has persistently advocated for campaign finance reform, even when there was no bill on the floor of either chamber.

  4. It seems like a rational group based perspective. Opinion leaders (like those evaluated in Noel's piece) would not have been pushing something requiring a substantial super majority over more reachable options.
    The reason it becomes a priority for fiscal conservative commentators in times of democratic control is obvious. Its that groups, particularly activists should view politicians attached to a group, like republican members of congress and fiscal conservatives, as being naturally better on an issue. Fiscal conservatives don't want a balance budget just to have it. They want it to stop the groups from driving policies they disagree, ie. democrats and their allies. They see less need in having one when their friends are in office.

  5. Republicans run up the bills and expect Democrats to come up with ways to pay them.