If the 2018 budget blueprint recently released by President Trump through the Office of Management and Budget is, as right-wing commentators are claiming, the new apogee of conservative fiscal policy, then the movement is well and truly dead.
Yes, the proposed budget—which only contains proposed reforms for discretionary funding and then gives no substantive detail as to how it would achieve its lofty ends— “slims” government by capping spending levels at $.151 billion, slightly below the $1.181 billion of former President Obama’s 2017 budget, and reduces the funds allocated to nearly all federal agencies other than the Department of Defense.
But numbers alone do not a moral imperative make. At least, this used to be a fundamental codicil of conservatism, which held the argument upon which a policy was based to be as important as the action taken to enact it. The right though has seemingly abandoned all pretense of analytical rigor. It is the only explanation for the swoon conservative commentators have fallen into over a vague outline of a skeleton budget that, in reality, is a screed of populist bureaucratic managerialism with a dross of fiscal responsibility.
The rallying cry of “Make Government Work Again” with which the president introduces the budget should be an immediate clue as to the impetus behind the budget cuts; it is not fervent ideological belief that the federal government is a poor adjudicator of men’s interests and needs to be rolled back to a position where it is too weak to do lasting harm that drives the president’s slashing of funds to agencies. What his tawdry spin on a banal and overused mantra betrays is a basic belief in purpose-driven government.
As Trump writes:
“It is time to prioritize the security and well-being of Americans.”
This goal, as a basis for finance, should terrify all proponents of limited government. Trump’s preface and the rationales behind budget allocation for specific programs and departments all rest in a belief that government is a force for good so long as it is well-run. And that implies someone must be directing it.
There is a two-fold problem here. First, government cannot be neutral; it must become a proactive force in designating what constitutes policy that is “good” for certain groups of Americans and actively work towards them. The relationship between the polity and the politicians is permanently altered. A government that contemplates the good of its citizens and attempts to bring it to being must pick favored causes; it has discretion which it will use to promote a group it has decided as disenfranchised. Since government is not a producer, it does so at the expense of others. Parity between citizens before the law is impossible under this framework.
Second, because the good of government depends on efficiency in management, the chief manager—the president in this case— is integral to its core functions. His purpose becomes his purpose. Government is too easily bended towards his own prejudices and desires, and this becomes masked in a veneer of altruistic morality.
It is precisely this which is infused throughout Trump’s budget. Take, for instance, his attitude towards regulation. The president’s mandate that every new federal regulation passed must be offset by the repeal of two regulations was like lodestone to conservative support.
Again, the problem here is two-fold. First, it acts as if numerical value is a moral imperative, as if the simple obliteration of rules has some relationship to merit in government action. If there was a moral imperative inherent to the number of edicts a government issues, totalitarianism would be the greatest of political frameworks as it gives the highest levels of power the greatest ability to act on the grandest scale. History obviously tells the folly of this rationale. The reliance on numbers misdirects attention from the proper emphasis of government, which is its effects on the rights of citizens.
Trump, to his credit, appears to recognize this:
“Each year, however, Federal agencies issues thousands of new regulations that, taken together, impose substantial burdens on American consumers and businesses big and small. These burdens function much like taxes that unnecessarily inhibit growth and employment. Many regulations, though well intentioned, do not achieve their intended outcomes, are not structured in the most cost-effective manner, and often have adverse, unanticipated consequences.”
However, like the populists before him, he attributes these failures to poor managerialism, not to a fundamental flaw in a government enervated by the power of discretion:
“The President is committed to fixing these problems by eliminating unnecessary and wasteful regulations.”
An obvious question arises: unnecessary and wasteful according to whom? The answer, of course, differs depending on the perspective of the manager.
Hence, Trump’s ability to not only justify but brag about a $52 billion increase to the Department of Defense:
“This increase alone exceeds the entire defense budget of must countries, and would be one of the largest one-year DOD increases in American history.”
Why is this of merit when every other department and agency needs to be better managed, a feat which is achieved through cutbacks? Answer: for no other reason than Donald Trump feels it is of merit and believes he can cite a mandate from the people as evidence. Again, the rationale is shallow, rooted in the moral imperative of a numerical majority supplied by his electoral victory. So long as it has this and the “good of the people” as a rhetorical defense, anything can be justified.
That this budget is not grounded in any sort of ideologically-driven fiscal principles is also evident in the language surrounding ad hoc funding for various programs which fall within the purview of the Department of the Interior.
In one paragraph, the National Park Service—among the most popular of government programs—is protected, at the expense of other lower-priority projects. The budget:
“Ensures that the National Park Service assets are preserved for future generations by increasing investment in deferred maintenance projects. Reduces funds for other DOI construction and major maintenance programs, which can rely on existing resources for 2018.”
However, funding for other DOI programs is slashed and the budget:
“Leverages taxpayer investments with public and private resources through wildlife conservation, historic preservation and recreation grants. These voluntary programs encourage partnerships by providing matching funds that produce greater benefits to taxpayers for the Federal dollars invested.”
There is no absolute standard here, as the fiscal welfare of the taxpayer is dealt with callously in one line item and protected in the next. Popular items are protected because they make it appear as if the bureaucratic manager is beneficent and responsive to the desires of the public. Yet, when less-popular items are dealt with, ruthlessness seeks in and issues are shifted onto the shoulders of lower levels of government.
Where is the compassion which supposedly undergirds the federal government in these matters? Citizens bear the brunt of state budgeting crises as much as those that occur at the federal level. This is not real fiscal responsibility; it is an economic shell game. It does not truly reform programs, merely cuts funding programs to those which do not bolster the popularity of the bureaucratic manager in the eyes of the polity. The problems of federal overreach and mismanagement are not truly solved but shunted to lower levels of government which must deal with them in relative obscurity.
There is a disregard for federalism, the wall which exists between private enterprise and public affairs and the rights of citizens. This is not a responsible budget which is guided by rigid ideology but a catalogue of the personal ambitions of the president.
Also published on Medium.