A dependent variable is better than a dependent people

William Voegeli, author of Never Enough, asks How Low Can We Go?

My answer is one way to describe the difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals want government spending to be the independent variable that determines tax levels, and conservatives want government spending to be the dependent variable determined by taxes. I’m a conservative in this regard, not just because I think the government we get by letting our tolerance for taxes determine the size of our welfare state will be smaller than the one we get by telling the government to do all sorts of compassionate things, and then mentioning as an aside some years later that we’ll need to raise taxes to pay for all our commitments. I’m a conservative because I think it’s democratically healthy to confront the hard question about taxes first and directly, and then let our answer to that question determine the budget perimeter for our welfare state. It is democratically unhealthy to proceed the way liberals have habitually dealt with the problem, by promising generous programs that will “pay for themselves” or even “pay for themselves many times over,” and only later, after people have come to expect and depend on the stream of government benefits, fess up about the taxes required to sustain them.

Mathis suggests a fiscal and moral symmetry: For liberals the answer to how much government should spend, especially on social welfare programs is always, “Just a little bit more,” while for conservatives the answer about the right level of taxes is always, “Just a little bit less.” But there are important asymmetries. Believing that we should have all the government, but only as much government, as we’re willing to pay for–as opposed to all the government we need, or think we need, or just plain want–conservatives are happy to discuss the limits of a democratically bounded welfare state. Doing so is sound economics, because we’ll never have a structural deficit resulting from a built-in mismatch between the government’s spending commitments and its taxing capacities. It’s also good politics because it insists that the citizens make their decisions about the scope of the welfare state on the basis of clear, honest assessments of what its programs will provide and cost. Both the politicians and the voters, in other words, are required to be adults.

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