Freedom in the Balance

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Conservatives have wisely warned us that a government with the power to give us everything we want has the power to take away everything we have.  It’s a warning we should heed as we follow public debates over taxes, spending, and budgeting

Soon the Stephenville City Council will begin work on the budget for the 2020 fiscal year, set to begin this October 1.  The precise issues which will dominate discussion within the council and between the council and the public remain to be seen, but, as always, the discussion will be conducted within the framework created by the legally mandated requirement that the budget must be balanced.  Therefore, if we want more spending on particular programs, we must accept either higher taxes or cuts in spending for other programs; if we want lower taxes, we must accept less spending.  

And that’s how it should be.  Government budgets must be balanced, except under the most extraordinary circumstances, and not only to preserve fiscal discipline.  Expenditures must be limited by available revenue to keep government limited and preserve our freedom.  The requirement that expenditures cannot exceed available revenue means that what the government can do is limited not only by constitutions, charters, and laws; the limits on the taxpayers’ ability or willingness to finance government programs limits what the government can do as well.

But these limits do not operate at the national level.  Because the U. S. Constitution contains no requirement for a balanced budget—neither “balanced” nor “budget” appears in the Constitution’s text—Republicans and Democrats alike can implement their programs unfettered with significant concerns about how to pay for them.  

As noted in previous columns, the Republicans have totally abandoned any pretense of fiscal responsibility.  They’ve pursued programs of tax cuts and spending increases on national defense and entitlements, justifying their habit of cutting taxes while raising spending with the fairy tale that tax cuts will someday pay for themselves with more revenue generated by increased economic growth.

And the Democrats, if anything, are worse.  Their leading presidential candidates are advocating free college for all, Medicare for all, and the Green New Deal—programs which, if enacted, could add tens of trillions of dollars to the budget, the deficit, and the debt.  And now there is growing sentiment on the left in favor of a new crackpot economic theory, Modern Monetary Theory, which holds that deficits don’t matter, and that the government can spend virtually unlimited quantities of money on whatever it wants simply by creating more money whenever it chooses.  You can check out how an advocate of MMT wants to apply it to financing the Green New Deal at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-green-new-deal-cost_n_5c0042b2e4b027f1097bda5b,  and read a critique of MMT at https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/the-left-should-resist-the-siren-song-of-modern-monetary-theory/2019/04/19/37e92190-5b9b-11e9-b8e3-b03311fbbbfe_story.html?utm_term=.d06dd6c27938.

In sum, each party, at the national level, feels free to offer whatever it wants.  The parties may honestly believe that what they advocate is in America’s best interests, although one can never rule out the possibility that they’re seeking to purchase power for its own sake as well.  But to an increasing extent, neither party sees the need to explain how, if at all, what it wants is to be paid for.  Thus whatever benefits this sky’s-the-limit approach to spending may confer—a stronger national defense, a cleaner environment—the danger is that the government can grow indefinitely, with all the benefits and dangers of which conservatives have warned.

So as we watch—or better yet, involve ourselves in—our city council’s efforts to reconcile revenues and expenditures, and do its best to meet the city’s needs with the taxpayers’ resources, let us remember that these efforts will be conducted within a balanced budget framework that will not yield everything we want, but which will help limit the power of the government to take away everything we have.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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