I have two items for my write-up today on M. Stanton Evans’ Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America’s Government (copyright 1975).
1. A significant point in my reading of Evans’ book thus far has been that the Left has not been consistent in its stances on the distribution of power within the U.S. Government. Prior to President Richard Nixon, prominent leftists supported a strong Presidency and a weak Congress, for they believed that the President should have the leeway to enact reforms, whereas they regarded Congress as slow and too tied to the status quo. What’s more, a number of liberals applauded Executive Privilege when the Eisenhower Administration used it to keep information from Senator Joseph McCarthy! And, even during Nixon’s Presidency, there were leftists who supported giving the President broad powers, such as the authority to implement wage and price controls. And yet, with Watergate and other scandals in the Nixon Administration, many on the Left were bemoaning that the Presidency had become too strong and abusive of power, and they expressed support for greater congressional oversight.
Evans narrates that, during the 1930’s, there were leftists who were critics of judicial review, since judges had overturned key aspects of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. With the Warren Court, however, the Left was singing a different tune, and courts were even legislating from the bench, going so far as to mandate school bussing in certain regions of the U.S.
Evans’ problem with the Left is that it supports a government of human beings rather than a government of law. For Evans, the Left doesn’t care which branch of the government has more power: it’s just interested in its agenda getting passed! Evans acknowledges that conservatives, too, have been inconsistent on the distribution of power within the U.S. Government, and he believes that the government’s authority should be limited by laws. According to Evans, if government authority rests on the whims of human beings rather than law, disaster can result, for what if the human being wielding power chooses to abuse it?
I wrestled some with this issue in my second post about Evans’ book, so I won’t do so here. I’d like to ask a question, though: Where would (or did) Evans stand on the nuclear option during George W. Bush’s Presidency? Remember when Democrats in the Senate were hindering the confirmation of some of Bush’s judicial appointments, and Republicans were calling for a nuclear option that would eliminate a filibuster and thus expedite the confirmation process? What did Evans think about that? On the one hand, Evans appeared to support a congressional filibuster in Clear and Present Dangers. On the other hand, Evans on page 104 expresses concerns about judicial activism, in which the court sets policy rather than simply negating laws, and he states that “the Congress and the Presidency should have at their disposal means for limiting the court if, in extremis, such limits are required.”
2. Chapter 6 is entitled “The Growth of Government”. Evans argues that government spending is increasing massively and is becoming a burden on taxpayers, and not just the wealthy ones. Evans will talk later about the issue of progressive and regressive taxation, and I’ll discuss that tomorrow. In my latest reading, however, Evans challenges a liberal argument that defense spending is the main problem in the federal budget, and that there would be more money to go around (for the poor and others) if the defense budget were cut.
Evans acknowledges that the defense budget has waste, but he does not believe that the defense budget is the main problem, for U.S. government spending on defense is rising at a slower pace than domestic spending, plus domestic spending takes up more of the federal budget. Evans may have a point there. You can see here a chart on U.S. Government spending for Fiscal Year 2010, and the defense budget makes up 20 percent (though the article raises other considerations, sometimes documenting its claims, and sometimes not).
Quite a few times, I’ve heard people on the Left say that welfare does not make up much of the federal budget, for, in terms of the federal budget as a whole, not a whole lot of money has been spent on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) or Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). That is true, but there is more to federal domestic spending than that, for federal domestic spending includes health care, education, public housing, job training programs, and the list goes on. I would not propose abolishing these programs, mind you, but I tend to agree with Evans that, if we are concerned about the growth and the amount of U.S. government spending, then we cannot just expect for cuts in the defense budget to suffice. In my reading thus far, Evans primarily focuses on how more government spending leads to a greater tax burden, but many of us can think of other problems that accompany more government spending: deficits, a higher national debt, etc. I wouldn’t revert to being a conservative over these issues, however, for I think that one can reconcile a leftist political orientation with fiscal responsibility. After all, countries that have national health insurance spend less on health care than the U.S. does! I don’t have to support an inactive federal government to believe that the federal government should spend money wisely.
I liked something that Evans said on pages 110-111: “All of us stand in two different relationships to government spending: On the one hand we are, in some fashion or other, beneficiaries of what government is doing—-if not in the form of subsidy, then in the enjoyment of some protection or service we consider essential. On the other hand, we are all in a sense victims of the system, in that we must pay the bills through taxes or inflation or submit to other social costs imposed by the enlargement of government powers. Politically speaking, the crucial question is which of these capacities is uppermost in our minds. If most people view themselves as beneficiaries of what the government is doing, then it is reasonable to expect them to favor increased spending and official intervention. If most people view themselves as victims of what the government is doing, then it is reasonable to expect them to favor less spending and official intervention. The subjectively onerous tax level is that which causes the second perception to replace the first.”
Evans goes on to argue that many Americans are seeing themselves as victims rather than as beneficiaries of government. My guess is that there are good and bad factors behind that: there are many who feel overtaxed because, well, they are overtaxed, but there are also some who don’t want to pay taxes to support the common good: public schools, parks, etc. I’m not talking so much about those who believe that there is a lot of government waste that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for, but rather those who don’t care about public schools because their kids are not in public schools (to use an example).
But I can see Evans point: for people to support government spending, they have to believe that it helps them somehow—-at the very least by making their society a better place. A while back, I referred to economist Bruce Bartlett’s statement that, in Europe, people don’t mind higher taxes as much because they get what they’re paying for, in terms of benefits (see here). Similarly, I once heard a Canadian say that, even though he paid more taxes in Canada, he didn’t mind that because at least he didn’t have to worry about his medical needs there. In my opinion, the U.S. Government has to work on taxpayers getting their money’s worth, by ensuring that money is spent wisely and efficiently. One reason that I like President Barack Obama is that he supports the government helping people, but he also has expressed a desire to eliminate governmental inefficiencies and waste, and in some cases he has done so (I think of Medicare).