Sunday, April 17, 2011

Random "Thoughts"

I will be flying by the seat of my pants on this one. You wake up with these "thoughts" bouncing around in your head.....this time about budgets and budget battles.

What if the current budget battle is merely a way of preserving the status quo? More generally, does it matter what kind of battles we fight? That is, are some battles less likely to raise first order questions/issues and, if so, as seems likely, are budget battles more or less likely to raise such questions? Of course, on "general principle" I am skeptical of these battles raising first order questions, so what can I say in defense of this skepticism? [The general principle being that the currently empowered are more interested in preserving the status quo than changing it.]

Suppose my wife and I are having a dispute, a budget dispute, over how much money we are spending or are going to spend to take a vacation in Europe. It gets pretty intense but we both agree that we should (a) take a vacation and (b) we should take that vacation in Europe. Obviously, if we did not agree that we should take a vacation, we would have a different kind of dispute. But now consider if this disagreement over taking a vacation was not budgetary, that is, did not revolve around the issue of whether we could afford a vacation but rather because one of us thought taking vacations is frivolous and not the way serious and mature human beings ought to act. These differences seem to lead to a different kind of dispute than the dispute over a budgetary question. Suppose a dispute between spouses over whether the family can afford to have its children hunt game and a dispute over whether the family should have its children hunt game because one member of the family thinks that shooting animals is barbaric. It seems to me that the latter is a different dispute, perhaps even a different kind of dispute than the former. [This brings up images of The Lord of the Flies for me, when Jack decides that he will turn his choir into hunters. Was that decision determinative of all that follows?]

Politically, suppose there is a nation that spends a lot of money on "defense." And suppose there arises a difference of opinion of whether that nation should continue spending so much on "defense." Now suppose this is cast as a budget battle, viz., the issue is defined as whether that nation can afford to continue spending so much on "defense." There is agreement that the money being spent is being spent on "defense" and so the only question is and should be a budget issue. Now, suppose someone comes along who says that these huge sums are being spent not for "defense" but for another purpose or purposes, say, for projecting the nation's power abroad in order to impose a particular order on the world, to remake the world in that nation's image because that way is the way all human beings should live. Now, it seems pretty clear that the second dispute, insofar as it is engaged in, is a different dispute than the first, the first being merely budgetary while the second seeks to raise the issue of "ends" or what the nation's "goal(s)" should be.

But note too that the first dispute, the budgetary dispute, would actually serve to displace the second dispute, the dispute over ends. That is, so long as this nation only debates how much it can afford to spend on defense, it will not debate to what end(s) its money should be spent. This phenomenon may be used to preserve the status quo insofar as the question of ends will not be raised.

So, one could argue that those arguing today for a much smaller government on budgetary grounds are not really serious about changing the status quo, despite all the ink being spent that claims the opposite. An argument for smaller government on budgetary grounds alone is not an argument that can change the direction of the government or the prevailing view of government as, say, the or an engine of progress. It has been said, and there is evidence to support these claims, that the national government was actually larger when Ronald Reagan left office than it was when he assumed office. Insofar as this was so, we should not be surprised because Reagan never made an argument, as did Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, that was, even in part, critical of the progressive view of government as the or an engine for progress. And Reagan could not do that because he did not and probably could not make an argument challenging the idea of "progress." He is not to be overly criticized for this "deficiency" as he is hardly alone in it. Even Paul Ryan, the current allegedly "radical" budget cutter, does not make such an argument. And as a result, his budget cutting will, despite all appearances, merely serve to reinforce the status quo. Big government will remain one of the central facts of our lives, even if or as the Paul Ryans of the current situation assume its power.

Which is just a long winded version of the quip: "No politician will reform the system that put him in power." I would only add, that this does happen but only rarely. Now, to get on with my Sunday......Is there a nap in my future?

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