Paul Jacob

Most regular readers of Townhall no doubt think of themselves as conservatives or “on the right.” And they think of their enemies as being “on the left.”

But on some issues, at least, aren’t we moderates, instead? And why can’t those on the left make common cause with us . . . at least on our truly moderate positions?

Controlling government growth, an unradical thought
Case in point: I support constitutional limits on government spending growth. For this, many on the left revile me and my friends and allies as “extremist right-wingers” and such.

But why would demanding moderation in government spending be considered anything but moderate?

Maybe it’s this: When governments lurch out of control, moderation demands that we try some seemingly “radical” things. You know, like making politicians behave with moderation.

And it turns out the only way to be even mildly successful at this: Turn the Constitution — and state constitutions — against the over-spenders in our legislatures. I’ve supported initiatives to do this. You may have voted for one, or one like it, if you’re lucky enough to live in a state with citizen initiative rights.

Leftists (and many “liberals”) tend to go into hysterics about these efforts, looking on initiatives like the “Taxpayer’s Bills of Rights” and campaigns like Oklahoma’s late and lamented “Stop OverSpending” as “subversive” and “pernicious.” (They use all sorts of nasty words.)

Their big fear seems to be that citizens will be easily convinced by simple pitches. So they call the short and pithy statements that many of us have used to promote such efforts “lying.” Even “fraudulent.”

Spending limitation slogans and arguments aren’t acts of prevarication, of course. I mean, why lie when the truth works so much better? Constitutional limits almost sell themselves.

But to some leftists, any argument for controlling spending seems like a lie. Why? Good question. It’s easy to see why politicians don’t like spending limits. Limits muck up the game of redistribution and favor-granting. It’s a little harder to get re-elected when you don’t always increase the number of targetable constituencies who get special spending favors from the government . . . at the expense of taxpayers at large.

Why would leftists follow suit? Why embrace the politician’s vice? I have theories, but I’m not certain. As I see it, support for spending controls should be bipartisan — omni-partisan.

And the reason to believe this is simple: It strains all credulity to judge every government program equally good and equally vital. Since some obviously fail, those should be abandoned to favor better government programs, and to favor the wealth and welfare of everyday citizens, otherwise hurt, burdened by taxes. (Isn’t this something with which all but anarchists could agree?)

Yes, but . . .
I am not trying to pretend anything, here. In the context of today’s spending and political habits, my preferences — and perhaps those of many or most Townhall regulars — are more radical than just controlling continual and ever-increasing spending growth. I’m the first to admit (indeed, proclaim) that I’d like to see the size of government go down.

And yet most of the flak I’ve received has been for political movements and ballot measures that have not sought to decrease the size or scope of government.

They have been for simple and modest efforts to control its growth.

Colorado’s TABOR law is something I’ve supported in these very pages. Oklahoma’s Stop OverSpending is something I had a hand in trying to get to the ballot — alas, unsuccessfully, since the political machine in the Sooner State would sooner see me rot in prison than such a measure appear on a state ballot.

The idea behind measures like term limits and TABOR and Stop OverSpending is born from a practical realization. Let’s start with small steps in the right direction and prove to people the direction is indeed the right one.

That’s what spending growth limitation measures do. In a context of current out-of-control spending, where programs are almost never abandoned even after proven ineffectiveness, and where taxes and commitments almost always go up, that’s when nearly everyone should be able to agree on a program of controls.

So why don’t those on the left embrace such measures? They would not be forced to take each next step, towards actually reducing the size or scope of government. Those steps would have to be proven anew each turn.

They say they fear that voters will be misled by simple arguments. (You hear this a lot; and their distrust for the people is quite amazing . . . and perhaps even more stark when one considers that one popular feature of TABOR and Stop OverSpending were provisions to allow a vote of the people to set aside the growth limits, in separate votes.) Or that basic services will get cut. (Not so, of course: that would only happen when politicians prioritize in favor of less-than-basic services). But the truth is more likely this: They fear that citizens will get used to demanding less from government.

Could that be it? Could they fear what I hope for — mounting evidence that society works better with less government, cascading support for cutting back on government?

The fear of responsibility
The idea of individual responsibility makes a whole lot of sense to a whole lot of people. Why, it’s common sense.

But to some people “on the left” — not necessarily my many good lefty friends, but those who have bought into the idea of ever-increasing government as the magic answer to everything — individual responsibility itself becomes something to oppose . . . almost on principle.

But what is the principle for rejecting responsibility? The notion that many people could use help from others is contested by almost no one. The left-wing add-on to this notion — that this need requires using government in a “robust” way (taking from some to give to others) — does not itself undermine the common-sense wisdom of moderate budgeting, saving for the future, not promising more than you can afford, etc.

Everybody knows that spending now is awfully tempting, even spending in excess of income. But everybody also knows that this temptation must often be resisted, in favor of saving for later, in favor of better-thought-out spending for more important goods. Responsible people across the political spectrum know this on a personal level, at least.

So why wouldn’t those leaning left want that wisdom applied to the process of political decision-making itself?

It’s the question that we need to ask our left-leaning friends, point blank. And repeatedly.

So, when leftists call us “extremists” for our so-called radicalism in demanding moderation, let’s call them on it. After all, constitutional spending controls wouldn’t be necessary if they got on board and regularly demanded from politicians precisely what they demand of their bosses and colleagues and family and friends: responsibility.

Moderation should be something we can all agree upon — and agree upon as “moderate.”

After that, on more controversial issues, we can agree to disagree.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.