“Starve the Beast” Doesn’t Work

President Bush has vetoed the $307 billion farm bill, but Republicans and Democrats in Congress promise to override it. The grab bag of subsidies and spending programs passed 308 to 106 in the House and 81 to 15 in the Senate. I’d guess the 121 opponents are a good measure of the weakness of limited government conservatives in Congress (and the opponents probably include some big city liberals).

The bill won majority Republican support in both the House (100-91) and Senate (35-13), notes columnist Robert Novak, and won the vote of “change” candidate Barack Obama, writes David Brooks. John McCain voted against the bill. The pundits are disgusted by the hypocrisy of politicians who claim to be conservative opponents of big government or liberal representatives of a new politics.

Bruce Bartlett, no Bush admirer, believes the fault lies with conservatives’ mistaken conviction that cutting taxes will force government to cut spending.  The theory is called “starve the beast.” It’s based on the view that, as Milton Friedman put it in a 1978 Newsweek column, “the only way to restrain government spending is by limiting government’s explicit tax revenue–just as a limited income is the only effective restraint on any individual’s or family’s spending.” [page 5 of Bartlett’s Independent Institute essay.] The analogy shows the failing in the reasoning.

Republicans who give a priority to cutting taxes over cutting deficits or cutting government spending have relied on “starve the beast” arguments that don’t work. From Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush Republicans have claimed that cutting taxes will put government in what Bush called “a fiscal straitjacket.” [page 13]

Cato Institute chairman Bill Niskanen argues to the contrary that “starve the beast” has a perverse effect: conservatives become lax and let government spending rise because they falsely assume the tax cuts they pass will restrain it. That seems to be the lesson of the farm bill vote. Until conservatives rediscover some moral or constitutional reasons why they should vote against government spending they will be unarmed against any special interest appeal for taxpayer help.

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