Tea Parties, Principles and their Application

I’m a big fan of the personal finance speaker & author Dave Ramsey… when our oldest was born nearly five years ago and my wife prepared to stay home to take care of her and her siblings-to-come, I didn’t know how we were going to manage on my income alone; Ramsey’s book and radio show provided us with a straightforward, systematic approach to managing our finances, and for that, I am grateful… his is the talk radio show that I still listen to most.

But when it comes to politics, Dave is far too typical of many mainstream conservatives: he confuses principles for their application, just like Limbaugh, Hannity, et al.

Yesterday — as Donald noted in a previous post — thousands of Americans held hundreds of protests across the country, complaining about overspending at the federal level. I am in agreement with their general sentiments, but I honestly don’t expect that they’ll have the effect which people like Ramsey think they will (Dave’s of the “throw all the bums out” opinion… conservative, but very unhappy with the DC GOP, let alone the Dems). I don’t think it will have the effect hoped for because I don’t think the outrage felt by the tea-partyers is widespread enough… in fact, it seems that the majority of Americans — especially the working classes — desire more help from the government right now, not less. NB: that’s not an endorsement, just an acknowledgment of what seems to be the reality. Abstracting from yesterday’s tea parties, that leads me to my thesis…

As I noted above the break, I think people like Ramsey and the big mainstream conservative talkers are confusing conservative principles for their contingent application. Specifically, it seems to me that they err by taking the application of principles in the early 80′s as the principles themselves, as evidenced by the continual search for the “next Reagan”. To state the obvious, though, it’s not 1980 anymore; the circumstances are very, very different, but I don’t think Dave, Rush et al. get that: they seem to think that the application of conservative principles — said application being, in short, lower taxes, less domestic spending — is the same thing as the principles themselves, but it’s not. “Cut taxes” is simply not a principle of conservatism, but can be the appropriate application of them, depending on the set of contingencies being faced at any particular time.

What happens, though, when the application becomes the principle? An shrinking echo chamber is created, in which “less taxes, less spending” becomes an ideological (i.e. un-conservative) principle which simply must be enforced, regardless of how appropriate it is an any particular moment or how attractive it is to the voter. So, you get what we seem to have today: mainstream conservatives and (at least some) Republicans going back to the 80′s well, think that since it worked then, it’ll work again. But I don’t think it will: I think the situation most working Americans are facing today is leading them to want more help from the government, not less. What is necessary, then, is a re-application of conservative principles to our new situation, an application which will take the struggles of today’s working Americans into account instead of imagining that they are the same struggles which their parents faced thirty years ago. Contra Rush, then, this isn’t an abandonment of conservative principles, but rather is the application of the same principles to new circumstances.

For more on this — especially some concrete examples of such an application — I heartily recommend Grand New Party by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. No, Rush doesn’t care for their ideas, but that’s okay… he’s living in the 80′s. ;-)

15 Responses to Tea Parties, Principles and their Application

  • paul zummo says:

    or more on this — especially some concrete examples of such an application — I heartily recommend Grand New Party by Ross Douthat

    Sorry, but that was one of the most tedious bores of a read. The funny thing about that book was that I was actually prepared to disagree with many of the book’s arguments, but what disappointed me was not that their arguments were incorrect, but that they simply didn’t make many arguments. It was 150 pages of questionable history followed by about 50 pages of the most generalized policy prescriptions.

    Douthat and his ilk remind me of the underwear gnomes from South Park.
    Step one: appeal to the middle class.
    Step two: ?
    Step three: Win elections.

    What’s missing from step two is any suggestion about substantive policy that would actually address the middle class. It seems at times as though they’re content with an “I feel your pain” approach to politics that is bereft of any meaning. And when they do offer up specific policy, its manifestly unworkable. If you add up all the tax credits they suggest in the book I think the average American would wind up getting triple their annual salary back in refunds.

    Furthermore, while I would agree that tax cuts are not necessarily an inherent part of the conservative philosophy, resisting the urge to believe that government can solve most of the problems hat we face is. Therefore, opposition to ridiculous government spending is in fact part and parcel of conservatism in the sense that is the practical application of the anti-utopian current within the conservative philosophy. And while it may be true that many Americans want greater government intervention, the prescription should not be for conservatives to simply wave their hands and succumb to the bad policy, but rather we should redouble our efforts and inform and persuade the public as to why that course of action is a bad idea.

    After all, we’re Catholics. Aren’t we supposed to resist the urge to simply follow the whims of the crowd?

  • the prescription should not be for conservatives to simply wave their hands and succumb to the bad policy

    I think that’s the heart of this disagreement, Paul… I certainly agree that opposition to ridiculous government spending is a common application of conservative anti-utopianism, but that doesn’t mean that all government spending is utopian and therefore to be avoided… that’s libertarianism more than it is conservatism. The question is, exactly how ought the government play its appropriate role in support of the common good? I think too often conservatives reflexively presume that no such appropriate role exists, but that’s certainly not the Catholic position.

  • paul zummo says:

    but that doesn’t mean that all government spending is utopian

    No, it is not, but certainly a huge chunk of what we do spend is. Is there any conservative justification for the bloated stimulus package that was just passed, or the even more bloated budget being debated?

    I think too often conservatives reflexively presume that no such appropriate role exists,

    That’s a bit of a straw man, and one that’s been debated here on this blog recently. Personally speaking, I am not an anarchist nor am I opposed to all government spending and/or activity.

  • Is there any conservative justification for the bloated stimulus package that was just passed, or the even more bloated budget being debated?

    No, but that wasn’t the point of my post (or of GNP, as you know). My reference to the tea parties and the focus of their ire (overspending) was merely a contemporary event I used to contextualize my larger point… as I noted, I agree with the sentiment of yesterday’s rallies. My concern is that “lower taxes, less spending” has become an ideological mantra.

    That’s a bit of a straw man, and one that’s been debated here on this blog recently. Personally speaking, I am not an anarchist nor am I opposed to all government spending and/or activity.

    Acknowledged. I didn’t mean to imply that *you* held that view… as I noted, I do that that too many of our fellow conservatives hold it, though. Or at least, that’s the implication of their rhetoric.

  • M.Z. says:

    The tea parties are representative of the Joe The Plumber-ization of America. All the complaining about how the government spends money from people that pay little to no federal income tax. (If you are paying under $10,000 in federal income taxes, you aren’t paying much in my book. FTR, I don’t pay a federal income tax because I have children, and most people with children don’t pay a net tax.)

  • paul zummo says:

    all the complaining about how the government spends money from people that pay little to no federal income tax.

    But that, in and of itself, is part of the issue. Nearly half of Americans pay no net income tax, and yet we’re spending trillions and trillions of dollars that will have to be paid back by someone. Well, I’m 32, so I sure as hell have something to worry about because I plan on living quite a while longer, and my 8-week daughter will sure as heck be straddled with paying this back.

    What people seem to be missing is that these protests are as much about spending as they are about taxes. These folks recognize that if we continue to spend as we are currently doing, then inevitably we’re going to be paying a lot more to Uncle Sam. It’s either that or declare nation-wide chapter 11.

  • MZ,

    All the complaining about how the government spends money from people that pay little to no federal income tax. (If you are paying under $10,000 in federal income taxes, you aren’t paying much in my book.

    Not to be combative, but doesn’t that essentially boil down to, “Shut up and enjoy the oligarchy, you plebs!”

    Extrapolating from the amount of taxes I pay now with four kids, I think I’d have to make around 150k in order to pay 10,000 in federal income taxes. Now, I wouldn’t object to making 150k, and it could certainly happen, but I’m not sure that we want to say that only the top 10% of families get to even discuss whether taxes and spending are too high. (And if we did, someone else would probably chime in that they’re too rich to be allowed to have an opinion on whether they should be taxed.)

    Chris,

    I’m not sure that if the general feeling right now is so much that more needs to be spent overall, or simply that more needs to be spent on “essential things”. But I would tend to say that the very basic, “lower taxes, less spending” cry is too simplistic to work very well for conservatives at this point. Or at least, it isn’t enough to rally more than 20-30% of the population.

    The problem to a great extent is probably that conservatives have been so successful in scaling back taxes since 1980 that for a majority of Americans the income tax is no longer all that real a burden. And while some people are willing to get worked up about taxation in general even if it doesn’t hit them very hard, a great many people are willing to sit back and say, “not my problem.”

  • The problem to a great extent is probably that conservatives have been so successful in scaling back taxes since 1980 that for a majority of Americans the income tax is no longer all that real a burden. And while some people are willing to get worked up about taxation in general even if it doesn’t hit them very hard, a great many people are willing to sit back and say, “not my problem.”

    Exactly, Darwin… I wonder how many people remember how much higher income tax rates were back then.

    I concur with your first point… I think of health care, for instance… many (most?) working families find the costs of medical care burdensome, and are looking for help (not necessarily handouts). I think it’s incumbent upon us as conservatives to try to address these real concerns, but from our principles, not a statist approach.

  • M.Z. says:

    Not to be combative, but doesn’t that essentially boil down to, “Shut up and enjoy the oligarchy, you plebs!”

    Not really. The sentiment is more of “My masters fights aren’t mine.”

    I’m not sure that we want to say that only the top 10% of families get to even discuss whether taxes and spending are too high.

    Discuss away. It is akin to men discussing labor and delivery though. As I’m sure you are aware, the wealthy tended to vote for Obama and also tend not to think taxes are too high. The idea that we can’t afford this spending is a nonstarter though. It just isn’t the case that the income tax burden is high by any measure. Conservatives would do better to argue that the spending is imprudent. One can at least make a legitimate argument there.

    Nearly half of Americans pay no net income tax, and yet we’re spending trillions and trillions of dollars that will have to be paid back by someone.

    I don’t know about you, but I get about as much benefit from the feds as the taxes I pay. I don’t engage in interstate commerce. I don’t fly overseas. I don’t depend on our navy to defend my ships from pirates. I don’t think the argument that everyone benefits equally (or even proportionately as a percentage of income) actually holds.

  • It is akin to men discussing labor and delivery though.

    We all have a stake in the economy. Regardless of how much in taxes each individual pays, the general sentiment behind the tea parties is that the current levels of spending the resulting taxation will prove ruinous for all. It may be that a minority of the populace feels this way now, but Obama’s approval ratings are trending downward and movements like this have a way of taking off; witness the property tax revolt of the late ’70s and how it blossomed into the tax-cutting enthusiasm of the early ’80s.

  • It probably also has a great deal to do with where one chooses to define having a stake. The total federal income taxes I pay are well under $10,000, but they are slightly over my total takehome income for an average month. Needless to say, that’s a fair amount of money to me. (And that’s with four kids and a mortgage worth of deductions and tax credits.)

    So one can argue that it’s an argument for our “betters”, but while it’s true that “the rich” voted heavily for Obama, if only people who paid more than $1000 in income taxes the previous year had been allowed to vote, McCain would almost certainly have won.

    And while I agree that taxation does not currently rest that hard on modern “average Americans”, I _do_ think average Americans have reason to be concerned about the fiscal position that we seem to be getting ourselves into at the moment, because paying our way out of it (and the long term economic slowness that may be involved) will end up affecting a lot more than the top 20%.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Fiscal madness at the federal level obviously has a major impact on the economy. We cannot pile up the debt we are currently adding fecklessly without it eventually causing the economy to completely cease to grow. Unless the Federal government simply repudiates the debt, or pays the debt in vastly inflated currency through hyper-inflation, either alternative being an economic calamity for the average citizen, there is no way that this debt is not ultimately going to be paid largely by tax increases on not only the wealthy, but also the middle class.

    Of course none of this takes into consideration the fact that the tea bag protests also take aim at taxes and spending at the state and local level. I think many of our readers would be surprised at the high percentage of their income that goes for taxes. Looking at the state, federal and property taxes my wife and I pay adds up to 31% of our income for 2008. This does not include “hidden” taxes which include sales tax, tax on utilities, etc. Pointing to the federal income tax alone merely touches the tip of the tax iceberg for the typical American.

  • Gabriel Austin says:

    DarwinCatholic Says:
    Thursday, April 16, 2009 A.D. at 3:08 pm
    “It probably also has a great deal to do with where one chooses to define having a stake. The total federal income taxes I pay are well under $10,000, but they are slightly over my total takehome income for an average month. Needless to say, that’s a fair amount of money to me. (And that’s with four kids and a mortgage worth of deductions and tax credits.)”.

    Do you include in this the 15% that goes for Social Security? The wickedness of the 15% is that is a flat tax, especially hard on the poor. If you make say $20,000 a year, $3,000 goes out in Soc Sec taxes, half paid by you, half by the employer.

    In the discussions about taxes and the debt, the question might well be raised “where is the money to come from to pay the debt?”. Might it not make more sense to tie debt to particular taxes? The governments seem to be working on a charge card mentality.

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