Matters of principle

Posted: Apr 09, 2003 12:00 AM

A little talk about principle never comes amiss. The war now going on is a war of principle; it seems we will win because principle (you can't let the #$#@%$'s get away with murder) was adhered to with some courage and moral discipline.

Back home, another principle will come to mind as soon as the war is over. It will merge, in fact, into the first one. The principle of which I speak is, freedom works.

The Senate doesn't go for that particular principle. Just before the Baghdad breakthrough, the ladies and gentlemen voted 51-48 not just to trim but to halve the Bush jobs-and-growth package. Six Republican "moderates," as they like to call themselves (Maine's Olympia Snowe, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and so on) joined the Democrats in nixing this one.

It seemed to the Democrats and their Republican allies that enlarging the sphere of economic freedom, by enlarging incentives to invest and produce, would be a terrible and destructive thing.

The House had voted $726 billion in tax relief. The Senate thought $350 billion would do just fine. The argument was that, with the Treasury already in deficit and the war draining federal revenues, this was a funny time to advise people they could give the government less money.

Washington being Washington, some "moderate" in-between figure will likely win consensus. The GOP "moderates" may rejoice when they find economic recovery proceeding just at a "moderate" clip: pale, undernourished, hardly able to stand upright.

With American victory certain in Iraq, talk of job losses and of continuing economic unsteadiness acquires greater prominence. The economy shed 108,000 jobs in March -- this, on top of the 357,000 lost in February. Unemployment approaches a non-disastrous but still uncomfortable 6 percent. Is recession in the cards? Not necessarily, but no Ouija board is required for understanding how much the economy could benefit right now from a hand.

It may not get one, not, at any rate, the kind it seems to need. The Democrats are hung up on the putative awfulness of rich people, as demonstrated, supposedly, in the Enron-Arthur Andersen affair and so on.

The Bush administration proposes to eliminate taxation of dividends -- a measure that Democrats tend to evaluate not in terms of the economic good it might do but rather with a view to prospects for electoral demagoguery. (With those Republicans, I'll tell ya, it's everything for the rich, and here's another thing, my fellow Americans ... )

Trust freedom to work? Not unless you love it on principle. That claim would be tough to make on behalf of congresspersons who get their jollies from extinguishing attempts to enlarge economic freedom.

So, then, what do they want to do -- besides sabotage measures to enlarge freedom? Ironically, there isn't any big-government economic recovery plan out there, unless we see tiny, one-time, across-the-board tax cuts as a plan. Which we shouldn't, the need of the day being job creation, not puny stimulus at the McDonald's take-out window. The real left-wing alternative, with presidential primaries coming up, is to lambaste deficits and Tax Breaks for the Wealthy.

Deficits, to Republicans, used to mean, gee, guess we can't increase spending this year. (Ho, ho.) Deficits now mean, to Democrats, gee, guess we can't cut taxes. (Snicker, snicker.)

The two dynamically opposed objectives -- spend more, tax less -- define federal policy over the past 70 years. Just one of the two conduces to the spread of human freedom, hence to general prosperity.

A level of taxation commensurate with the minimal objectives of government rather than with the maximal goals of social planners was the pre-Franklin Roosevelt model. Freedom was good -- in itself and as an instrument for job- and wealth-creation. Freedom meant -- means -- following your hunches, accepting the risks, reaping the gains or losses.

A thousand U.S. Senates couldn't satisfactorily define what's best to do with your money and your freedom. But that hasn't stopped one particular Senate from trying.