Commentary

Dollar-Store New Deal?

In 1960 Sen. Barry Goldwater called the policies of the Eisenhower administration “a dime store New Deal” — a promise to deliver to the voters everything the Democrats promised, but at a discount. And that has been a fundamental dividing line in the Republican party ever since: Should the GOP challenge the Democrats’ fundamental commitment to an ever-bigger federal government, or only promise to deliver services more efficiently and at lower cost to taxpayers?

We’ve seen that issue in the budget battles of the past week. In the face of unprecedented deficits, the Tea Party surge, the Republican victories of 2010, the insistence of some freshmen Republicans on actual cuts in federal spending, and praise for Rep. Paul Ryan’s seriousness in presenting an alternative budget, President Obama announced that he would make a major speech laying out his vision of how to control the incredible expanding federal budget. Drum roll, please. Media hype. Live national broadcast. Whereupon the president proceeded to give a ringing defense of … everything the federal government does. Everything from Head Start and student loans and energy subsidies to roads and broadband access to Medicare and Medicaid. And he said that Republicans want a “fundamentally different America” that wouldn’t offer such a cornucopia of benefits.

His foil in the debate was the House Republican budget, prepared by Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and passed on a party-line vote on Friday, April 15, a day when Americans are focused on the size of the tax burden. Reading the analyses and criticisms of the Ryan budget in the mainstream media, you’d think it was that fundamental challenge to New Deal/Great Society/Obama big-government liberalism that many conservatives have longed for. The New York Times declared:

What is under way now is the most fundamental reassessment of the size and role of government — of the balance between personal responsibility and private markets on the one hand and public responsibility and social welfare on the other — at least since Ronald Reagan and perhaps since F.D.R… .

The Republican plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin … contains a substantial dose of deficit reduction but is really a manifesto for limited government.

It would take big steps toward privatizing Medicare, slash upper-income tax rates, repeal last year’s health care law, bite deeply into nearly all federal programs and try to cap the size of government relative to the economy.

Ron Elving, the Washington editor of NPR, was beside himself:

It takes the country into a different era, an era, really, from the past, before the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson and, to some degree, before the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt.

Really? Before the Great Society? Before the New Deal? Well, let’s see. Medicare and Medicaid were created in the Great Society, so presumably the Ryan budget gets rid of them. And Social Security was part of the New Deal, so Ryan abolishes that?

Of course not. Indeed, Ryan promises to “Strengthen the Social Safety Net.” He argues that transfer programs “are growing at an unsustainable rate [that] will strain the safety net until it breaks.” He proposes to put them on a sustainable path. If he succeeds, that would be good news for taxpayers. And since he wants to get both state governments and individual recipients involved in paying attention to costs, then he might actually “bend the cost curve” of health care, something President Obama has talked about without offering any programs that would actually do that.

But Paul Ryan’s budget doesn’t really eliminate anything the federal government does. He’d still have the federal government taxing us to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, and troops in a hundred countries. (He does propose to privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, so that’s one actual reduction in the scope of the federal government.) As big-government conservative David Brooks writes, “it is a serious effort to create a sustainable welfare state.”

But some of us don’t want to live in a “sustainable welfare state.” We don’t just want to “bend the cost curve.” We want a free society, a society in which people are free to make their own decisions and bear the responsibility, a society in which each of us is the owner of his or her own life.

Over the past week and more we’ve talked a lot about numbers — how big the budget is, how big the cuts are, if there are any cuts, when spending and revenues might balance — but we haven’t talked enough about something more important: What the federal government should do.

We need more debates about the nature of individual freedom, and the Constitution, and the free society, and actually limiting the power and scope of the federal government. Saving the taxpayers money is great, but a dime-store New Deal — now, I guess it would have to be at least a dollar-store New Deal — isn’t enough. Libertarians and lots of other freedom-lovers in the United States don’t want to be what the always quotable David Brooks calls “components of a national project,” with lives “given meaning by the service we supply to the nation.” We’ll find our own meaning, thank you. Without direction and without subsidy from the centralized state.

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute. He is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer, the editor of The Libertarian Reader and other books, and the author of the entry on libertarianism in Encyclopaedia Britannica.