A Philosophical Deficit

deficitAmerica’s federal government will reach its “debt limit,” its statutory cap on borrowing, this month. This semi-annual event will send an endless parade of Republicans to the congressional microphone to pay lip-service to cutting spending and controlling the deficit. GOP leadership will enter into a sham-negotiation before ultimately capitulating to Democrats with the revealing apology: “We cannot imperil the creditworthiness of the United States.”

Surely not! After all, if that happened, we couldn’t continue to borrow, and if we couldn’t continue to borrow, over what could we negotiate? And if we couldn’t negotiate over debt, what exactly would Republicans do? What exactly would Republicans be offering?

Perhaps the worst kept secret in America is that Republicans love the deficit. With no deficit to justify calls for less spending, they would actually have to challenge the goals of federal spending–they’d have to oppose “education,” “health care,” “poverty relief,” “housing,” and a variety of other misnamed bureaucratic labels. Unfortunately, the GOP has long-since abandoned a serious debate on these points. Indeed, the GOP’s most conservative Senators often state that they will vote for FEMA aid, unemployment extensions, and much else “if it’s paid for” (that is, by us).

Republicans have chosen to define government in terms of spending. But the true “size” or influence of government is not about how much it spends, but how far and how persistently it extends into our lives. Shifting resources around–moving from public to private prisons–can reduce government nominally while only furthering abuse. Using mandates on employers to pay for social agendas can divert fiscal costs from taxpayers to consumers, but does little to limit government power.

As long as Republicans make their “small government” brand about dollars, the government won’t shrink, but their party will. The difference between Republicans’ weak philosophy and a vision that will command respect is that it is inward-looking rather than outward looking. Not that government’s internal finances are unrelated to its external actions, but it’s a sign of priorities that the GOP cares more for the former than the latter.

Democrats focus all of their energies outward–on rights for immigrants, equality for gays, protections for workers, a net for the poor, etc. The GOP compensates for its lack of vision by targeting abstract numbers and focusing its energy on protecting corporations—the hallowed “entrepreneur” and “small businessman.”

Sometimes, this agenda produces positive results for liberty, but it often reveals contempt for workers and personal liberty. Take two of the immigration bills that passed House Judiciary Committee last year. Under current law, foreign agricultural workers receive federally-subsidized legal representation, which can be abused and lead to excessive litigation for farmers. Rather than strip workers of this privilege, the Ag Act (H.R. 1773) would strip farm workers of their right to access federal courts at all.

Similarly, the Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772) would mandate the employment verification system “E-Verify” for all employers. By checking names and social security numbers against a federal database, this system intends to screen out illegal workers, but often errors  catch legal workers. According to the government’s own numbers, if mandated nationally, more than 180,000 legal workers per year would receive an erroneous nonconfirmation that would need to be sorted out with the Social Security Administration.

Never mind the hypocrisy of the small government party imposing such a mandate, the real evidence of the GOP’s contempt for workers comes in how it handles such errors. The Senate immigration bill also mandated the flawed program, but it required that workers be allowed to work while they appealed an error. By contrast, the House bill would permit employers to make job offers conditional on final confirmation, meaning those 180,000 legal employees would lose days, weeks, or even months of pay during a lengthy appeal, entirely due to the government. When given a choice between workers and business, the GOP chooses business.

These examples are symptomatic of the GOP’s basic problem: its inability to cultivate a definition of freedom deeper than that employed by the Chamber of Commerce. The party that for better and worse represents “small government” must see that markets are only free if both workers and employers are protected. Until the GOP cares about the entry level employee and can explain markets in terms of his best interests, it will continue to lose fights on the minimum wage, Obamacare, and the rest.

Republicans love the deficit because they have a philosophical deficit. For the GOP’s defense of the free market to stand, it must find a future without its intellectual crutch—it must argue for freedom on its own grounds, not as a cost-saving measure.