A Further Perspective

The New America Firsters

As opposed to the Government Firsters (and Lasters).

By 2.7.11

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As we mused here a few days ago -- in a piece pointing out that deregulation had to begin somewhere -- Rome wasn't burned in a day. (According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the fire, in 64 A.D., actually burned for five and a half days.)

The Republican Study Committee, the caucus of the conservative members of the House of Representatives, has lighted a small fire by drawing up a list of proposed cuts described by an incensed Left, the crowd that always puts government first, as deep, dramatic, and radical. Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, however, points out, complete with graph, that the cuts will hardly make a dent in the federal deficit.

That may be true, but the collection of proposals is, nevertheless, the most breathtaking Washington had ever seen -- until Senator Rand Paul came along with a list of bigger cuts. Not since Ronald Reagan campaigned on abolishing the Department of Education -- you've seen the hole on Independence Avenue, haven't you? -- had anyone seriously proposed cutting the federal government.

It may be true that eliminating the subsidy for mohair will save, annually, only $1 million, and the USDA Sugar Program, only $14 million, and the International Fund for Ireland, only $17 million.

But those cuts are important for three reasons. They can lead to a change in the culture. They can introduce, if not complete, a lesson of shared sacrifice. And they may remind us that, for a while, we will have to go back to basics.

Central to America's financial good health is a change in Washington's culture. Many years ago, the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard proposed denationalizing the lighthouses, partially on the theory that a people debating the merits of denationalizing lighthouses would be less likely to nationalize the steel industry.

Changing America's culture, so that it will put its financial house in order, will be, distressingly, more challenging than winning World War II. At the height of that second great war, America had twelve million men and women in uniform, of whom seven million were overseas, in harm's way.

But before America's entry into that war, it was not apparent to everyone, certainly not to the 800,000 America Firsters, that America had a stake in the struggle being waged in Europe. Then early one December morning a man named Yamamoto made that thinking outmoded.

After Pearl Harbor, the nation knew it had a problem. And knew it would have to make sacrifices to solve it. And, for a time, it would have to go back to basics: America's superfluities would have to give way to support for its soldiers. In a moment, Admiral Yamamoto had changed America's culture.

No real progress toward averting the nation's coming fiscal disaster can be made without changing the culture of entitlements. And no real progress in cutting entitlements can be made without changing the culture of spending.

If we cannot eliminate the $167-million subsidy for the National Endowment for the Humanities, we cannot make changes in Social Security. If we cannot eliminate the Department of Energy's $530-million program of Weatherization Grants to states, we cannot make changes in Medicare.

And if we cannot make changes in Social Security and Medicare, we will go broke.

Unfortunately, the Republican Study Committee's culture-changing proposal, which also would eliminate the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, the Ready-to-Learn Television Program, and the death gratuity for members of Congress -- stop smiling this instant! -- can hardly be described as a "shared sacrifice" or "back to basics" proposal. Getting Americans to understand sacrificing and going back to basics may require leadership from the president. But as we saw in the State of the Union speech, it will not come from this president, tethered by youthful ideology untempered by experience, and that means we may have to wait six more years.

Even as the conservatives in the House of Representatives are listing cuts that will hardly make a dent in the federal deficit, the president, with the support of his Government Firsters, is planning additional spending that will hasten the day of financial reckoning. The inevitable day.

Inevitable because, as the economist Herbert Stein once famously said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." Sooner or later our financial house will have to be put in order. If we don't do it ourselves, the Chinese may do it for us. Then will we learn what deep, dramatic, and radical really mean.

The Republican Study Committee has tried to start a fire. We cannot know now if it will succeed -- succeed in burning away the old ways and making way for new.

If it does not, then when the fire goes out, as it did in Rome after five and a half days, it will be cold. Cold enough, perhaps, finally -- but is this what we must hope for? -- to be, for the Government Firsters, a modern Yamamoto moment.

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.