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Recovering conservatism as caution

Hunter Baker | What’s the hurry in passing massive spending bills?

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks to the press. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

Recovering conservatism as caution
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Washington is currently transfixed by political controversy over the massive spending bills proposed by President Biden and pushed by the leadership of the Democratic Party in Congress. Politicians have debated the issues and drawn lines. At this point in the debate, we have reached a truly dangerous stage of brinksmanship. The proposed spending in question is essentially world-historical in scope. The final question: Will we really commit to a fiscal bill of approximately $4 trillion in spending?

What about conservatives? These days, we seem less certain of what conservatism involves, whether that be resurgent nationalism or something else. Still, one thing we should perhaps consider is recovering the idea of conservatism as caution and care.

Among the politicians, the view of an acceptable fiscal program has expanded to almost incomprehensible heights. When Bill Clinton took office in 1992, he sought roughly $40 billion to stimulate an economy in recession. Barack Obama, coming in with an unquestionable mandate in 2008, sought almost a trillion dollars. Then, given the scale of the financial crisis, it was politically plausible, but also mind-boggling. Now, the political class routinely speaks in terms of multi-trillion dollar packages.

Even without considering normal recessionary and automatic measures, the federal government has enacted measures costing nearly $6 trillion—originally presented as a response to COVID. While the numbers have been galactic in scope, we can understand the need to respond to the most devastating public health event in the United States of the past century.

But the counsel of wisdom would suggest that it is not the time to layer another $4 trillion (or more if Sen. Sanders and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez had their way) atop an already inconceivable mountain of cash working its way through the system. That spending breaks the budget and keeps going. We now have strong indications that previous COVID spending has actually helped worsen the labor crisis and has stimulated the growth of inflation which appears to be proving itself more than temporary. None of this should surprise us since it is precisely what basic economics would predict.

We also need to remember that federal spending seldom goes down. Instead, new spending is simply normalized. Whatever we settle upon in today’s emergency may well become the basis of tomorrow’s everyday reality. That’s the way government works.

There are other problems. The Biden administration came in with narrow margins in Congress (and basically none in the Senate). Yet, it is trying to enact generational change with ambitious social spending added to infrastructure spending of the type we traditionally understand (roads, bridges, the electrical grid, airports). Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has expressed what seems like a reasonable concern that we are in danger of making the American people overly dependent on the government.

At a minimum, it would seem wise to take time to see how the aid sloshing through the system works itself out and how much inflation ultimately results before spending trillions more.

It is also critical that we don’t fail to consider that if heavy federal spending results in inflation, we may not be well situated as a nation to handle the problem. While the late 1970s and early 1980s inflation was quite difficult for retirees on fixed incomes, it is important to realize that our aged population is far larger now than it was at that time. Inflation would quickly create an additional crisis and it exacts a cruel tax. We would do well to understand what the unprecedented COVID response has wrought before we pour in additional trillions.

Washington politicians are playing a dangerous game. On the Democratic side, all that now stands between reason and sheer irresponsibility is the reluctance (for now) of two United States senators. The left wing of the party sits in the driver’s seat, and massive spending is their battle plan for expanding the scope and reach of the government—permanently.

Conservatism prizes caution as a virtue. The currents now swirling in Washington throw caution to the wind.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker serves as dean of arts and sciences and professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is a research fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the author of three books (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul).


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I like the idea of conservatism as caution. Sometimes there are conditions that arise that demand a response, and progressives are always there with a quick and ready answer that fails to reckon with the full consequences of their ideas that are often top-down, government heavy, and erode individual liberty. What I lament is that conservatives often get stuck arguing with progressives over their overwrought solutions and forget about the problem that triggered the debate in the first place, such that conservative solutions are never seriously discussed.

Especially in light of the rancor and bitterness that characterizes modern politics, I also like the concept of conservatism as gratitude: https://www.aei.org/articles/conservatism-and-gratitude/


The cost of these programs is only the tip of the iceberg. What about the projects themselves. Who financed the gas stations in the early twentieth century? Government controlled child care looks like Nazi indoctrination camps. Government controlled colleges will not stimulate any research scientists. Forcing manufacturing overseas, in countries which are exempted from clean air requirements, only pollutes, when we have cleaner energy here. The list goes on. Can we analyze the merits of these programs and vote no, even if they are "zero dollars"?