Steve Chapman

Most conservatives are of the "starve the beast" school, which says that if you deprive the government of revenue by cutting taxes, it will be forced to shrink. That would be true if the government couldn't spend money it doesn't have. In fact, it does so year in and year out. There is no point cutting off a wayward teen's allowance if he still has your credit card.

In 2006, a study published by the late economist William Niskanen debunked this theory of spending dynamics. Niskanen, who was Reagan's chief economist and chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, looked at the historical data and found that revenue increases actually curtailed spending growth. Revenue reductions, however, caused it to accelerate -- the exact opposite of what Norquist claims.

University of Alabama political scientist Michael New later took another look at the evidence and confirmed those findings. "Like Niskanen, I find statistically significant evidence that low levels of federal revenues actually stimulate expenditure growth," he wrote in the Cato Journal in 2009.

It's not hard to see why. Americans are more likely to support a bigger federal budget if they don't have to pay the full cost each year. Tax cuts allow us to get $100 worth of programs and services for only $80. As with any commodity, price discounts increase consumption. Tax increases force us to pay something closer to the real cost of government, which dampens demand for it.

We fought two wars without raising taxes to pay for them. If Americans had known that invading Iraq was going to cost them real money, right away, they would have said: No, thanks.

Tax increases don't produce automatic improvement, particularly with a president who shows minimal interest in budget cutting. If Republicans want to curb spending, they will have to insist on clear, enforceable measures to induce greater discipline, and stick to them. That's not the easiest thing to achieve. But unlike a pink unicorn, it's happened before.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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