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Limited Government In An Age Of Militant Progressivism

Perhaps the most powerful lure of progressivism is its promise of permanent victory for its side and permanent defeat for its enemies.

President Obama unveiled a 2015 budget this week that puts an end to what he fantastically described as an “era of austerity.” (Finally: we can stop worrying about the government spending too little.)

His budget would increase spending from $3.5 trillion to $6 trillion and the national debt from $17.3 trillion to $25 trillion over the next ten years. His plan is the equivalent of the head of every American household relaying that while the fam continues to fall $1,000 short of paying its bills each month, and has $170,000 in debt, we’ll be putting solar panels on Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, buying more Wonka bars, and hiring Mary Poppins in the next decade.

Yet, if math’s not your thing, and you quickly scanned the Washington Post‘s visual breakdown of the President’s budget, you might have thought defense spending to blame and started searching the internet for a new bumper sticker: “It will be a great day when pre-K education and the wind energy industry have all the money they need, and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to outfit its fleet.”

In perfect Progressive form, the Post failed to emphasize that its graphs only accounted for “discretionary” spending, which amounts to only about 30% of the budget. You learn a lot about the geopolitically-challenged age we live in when on the same day that the Russians are securing their military installations in Crimea, our elites sweep non-discretionary social welfare spending under the rug and throw appropriations for national defense under the bus.

The Constitution, of course, places no limits on the total amount of tax revenue raised or dollars spent by the federal government. Alexander Hamilton explains this omission in a number of Federalist essays, including Federalist 34:

There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity. It is true, perhaps, that a computation might be made with sufficient accuracy to answer the purpose of the quantity of revenue requisite to discharge the subsisting engagements of the Union, and to maintain those establishments which, for some time to come, would suffice in time of peace. But would it be wise, or would it not rather be the extreme of folly, to stop at this point, and to leave the government intrusted with the care of the national defense in a state of absolute incapacity to provide for the protection of the community against future invasions of the public peace, by foreign war or domestic convulsions?

The Constitution was not written for 1787 (or 2014), but for all time. As a result, it would be “the extreme of folly” to include within it limitations on taxing or spending calculated according to the needs of the moment or on the assumption that the relative peace of that day would extend indefinitely into the future. The Constitution would not have survived the War of 1812–much less the Civil War or World War II–had its authors presumed to know the full scope of future spending needs and placed precautionary limits within the document itself.

Note, however, that it is military spending (alone) that Hamilton has in view. If the Founders did not constitutionally limit the size of the federal budget, they did limit its scope. From the time of the founding until the dawn of the Progressive era in the early twentieth century, federal spending, following the Constitution, was used almost exclusively to buy things (like bullets, ships, and road-building materials) or pay salaries (elected and unelected officials and contractors).

Limited military pensions and payments to disabled veterans and the widows and orphans of those killed in action accounted for the only spending in any way analogous to the modern welfare state–and that not with a view toward redistributing wealth or overcoming natural differences in ability or achievement, but rather as compensation for sacrifices made in defense of the nation’s independence and liberty.

Today, of course, the dominant items in the federal budget are entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and various forms of welfare, which, in 2013, accounted for $2.3 trillion in federal spending–none of which were anticipated in Hamilton’s essays or derivable, without the most fatuous verbal gymnastics, from the enumerated powers of the Constitution.

The shift in governmental priorities is explained in part by an equivalent shift in American political norms, having experienced the horrors of a Civil War, two hot world wars, a cold war, and now, a war on terror. Many Americans have been won over by William James, the “father of American psychology,” who thought that the great alternative to war is not partaking in a peaceful arcadian economy under the auspices of an extensive representative republic, but in engaging in the “Moral Equivalent of War” against social and economic injustice at home and abroad:

Pacifists ought to enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents . . . So long as antimilitarists propose no substitute for war’s disciplinary function, no moral equivalent of war, analogous, as one might say, to the mechanical equivalent of heat, so long they fail to realize the full inwardness of the situation. And as a rule they do fail. The duties, penalties, and sanctions pictured in the utopias they paint are all too weak and tame to touch the military-minded.

The shift in governmental priorities is explained in part by an equivalent shift in American political norms, having experienced the horrors of a Civil War, two hot world wars, a cold war, and now, a war on terror.

James argues that the best way for utopian pacifists to make peace with the military-minded within society is by enlisting their counterparts in wars of a different kind, and in becoming militant themselves. If you doubt at all the effectivness of his psychological prescription, try to engage in a peaceful conversation with a member of NARAL, Green Peace, or about the merits of their arguments. You’ll be hard pressed to find a 19th century Jane Addams-type pacifist among them. And the co-opting of leaders of strategic institutions has been almost as successful as few in this cohort publicly challenge progressive conceptions of the moral equivalents of war.

Is it possible to give peace a chance in this political environment? Earlier in this series, we addressed the need for entitlement reform and suggested an alternative approach to helping the poor. But might a resetting of our national priorities and a cure for our fiscal ills, at least, be found in a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget?

We fear not, for at least two reasons:

1. All reasonable versions (for example) of a balanced budget amendment provide for an exception to the rule in cases of war or when a congressional supermajority (⅗ or ⅔ vote in both houses) otherwise judges it expedient. One of the predictable, if unintended, consequences of all supermajority requirements is that they open up room for factious behavior by a minority determined to name the price for its cooperation. We may go to bed dreaming of stalwart conservatives holding out against runaway spending and wake up to find stalwart progressives have made new entitlement spending their condition for supporting critical defense appropriations. We may find, in fact, that votes to override the amendment requirements simply become routine, as members of both parties find the only way to protect their cherished spending programs is to form a bipartisan super-faction that funds “all of the above.”

Do away with the overrides, then? That cure is worse than the disease, amounting to unilateral fiscal disarmament.

2. More broadly, the amend-the-constitution approach to solving our political ills carries with it several serious political risks. In the near term, it seems highly likely to fail, given that just thirteen blue states can stop any amendment approved by Congress or a newfound convention. Of course, some longshots are worth playing, but the underlying desire to embalm a final political victory in the Constitution would create a false sense of security even if it succeeds. The original Constitution has all the language and limits necessary to protect liberty if the people would have it. And no set of amendments can protect it if they won’t.

Perhaps the most powerful lure of progressivism made militant is its promise of permanent victory for its side and permanent defeat for its enemies. Progressivism isn’t going away. Victory against its excesses, never permanent, will require a return to the public square, where the case for limited government is made plainly, boldly, and vigilantly, as is ever the price of liberty.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.

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