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What If You Can’t Have the Cake?

July 12, 2010

Douthat has a very good post to go along with his column today about the idea of small government v. the idea of flat government.  These are both conservative principles, but Douthat suggests that what I see as resentment has prompted the Right to favor flat government over limited.  Both are preferable, but sometimes you have to make a choice:

But over the next few decades, as our entitlement commitments balloon, the obvious way to keep the size of government from ballooning with them is to make Social Security and Medicare steadily more redistributive — through means-testing and progressive cost-sharing.

These are reforms that many conservatives support. (See, for instance, Fred Barnes in today’s Wall Street Journal, making the case for Robert Pozen’s proposal to index high-income Americans’ Social Security benefits to inflation, rather than to wages.) But their redistributive aspects are in tension with the “don’t spread the wealth” mood on the contemporary right — a mood that has many conservatives fretting (wrongly, in my view) about how middle class Americans don’t pay enough in income tax, and that may have inspired some of the G.O.P.’s cynical-seeming attacks on the Democratic health care bill’s Medicare cuts. They might not put it exactly this way, but I suspect that there are some Republican voters (particularly in the retirement-age demographic) who would prefer to see the government grow apace, rather than seeing Medicare and Social Security transformed into an explicit safety net that pays out a lot more for the poor than for the rich. Better a bigger government that gives high-income taxpayers their money’s worth, their (unspoken) theory would go, than a smaller one that spreads their wealth around.

Yeah, this is something I’ve never quite understood.  I’m not going to try to cite any real-world evidence here — because I think it’s more of a mentality than an actual policy pursuit — but I think conservatives are far too unwilling to deal with the fact that they can’t have their cake and eat it too when it comes to things like entitlement reform (as Douthat notes, there’s no reason you can’t do both, but we’re still dealing with the GOP out of power right now).  Maybe means-testing Medicare isn’t the best way to deal with the program’s insolvency, but not means-testing because it’s another unfair tax on high-income people isn’t really a good way to look at it.  You could, for example, prefer Medicare cuts to be employed the way the Democrats did in the PPACA — by some weird “test-hole” type arrangements where the feds try to decide which payments go where.  That’s a good way to make sure that everybody’s still paying his fair share for entitlement spending (at least nominally speaking), but it’s not really a good way to keep government smaller.  If I have to choose between the two, I’m going small government.

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