The economics lesson Rush Limbaugh didn't know he needed

The economics lesson Rush Limbaugh didn't know he needed
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When I interview summer interns, one of my favorite questions is: “Would you rather have a balanced budget with a higher level of spending, or an unbalanced budget with lower spending?” 

How people answer this question tends to reveal a lot about what they think about government in general. Put more simply, are you worried about growing debt and all of its potential downsides? Or, are you worried about spending and the costs of a government that is allowed to keep getting larger in size and scope?


Of course, there’s not necessarily a right-or-wrong answer to this question. Indeed, it’s possible to worry about both — or about neither. Concerns about debt typically go hand-in-hand with unease about spending, and those of us who care about fiscal prudence typically share both perspectives simultaneously.


My intern question tries to separate these motivations, and which answer you or I perceive as right depends largely on the assumptions you make independent of the question. 

The other day, Rush Limbaugh admitted that he’s largely in the debt camp. Responding to a caller on his show last Thursday, Rush said the following

“I probably should not admit this, because it changes for me day to day. But I have to tell you, this whole budget thing, I think I’m immune to it now … We’re told that the national debt’s gonna wipe us out, that the deficit’s gonna wipe us out. We’ve gotta get a handle on the deficit. It’s growing because the national debt is growing.

“And I know theoretically all this is bad, but in the real world all of the apocalyptic warnings I grew up hearing have yet to happen. The national debt has not choked us. The national debt has not destroyed us. We may be living in the middle of the destruction and don’t see it yet, but for some reason I didn’t get caught up in it.” 

Nothing in his comments is particularly surprising. These arguments are common, at least from commentators who skew toward the left. What is surprising is that this admission came from Rush Limbaugh, the self-styled voice of the conservative movement.

Rush’s comments stand out because they belie the more fundamental reason why many of us are fiscally conservative in the first place. It isn’t just because we believe many federal programs to be unconstitutional, even if their goals might be admirable and worthwhile.

It also isn’t just because we believe the current mix of programs and waste is unsustainable and may threaten a fiscal crisis (and in fact, many of us don’t even believe this latter part is particularly imminent at all).

No, the reason most honest fiscal conservatives take the worldview we do is because reducing spending is a goal that’s worthy in and of itself. To the degree that the public sector operates inefficiently, or otherwise provides goods or services in a costlier fashion than private companies (or non-profits, churches, associations and so on), Americans of all stripes are disadvantaged.

Just ask a disabled vet how much better his interactions with the VA would be if the federal budget were only balanced. The problems with that particular agency would exist all the same, because it’s inefficiency that’s the boogeyman, not budget imbalance.

Of course we’re concerned about the national debt, unfunded liabilities and potentially lower economic growth. But we’re also concerned, generally more so, with wasting limited resources and creating large federal bureaucracies that are unaccountable to citizens — their customers — and that make us all poorer as a result.

Yes, we need to fix budgetary imbalance for its own sake, but the problems with government largesse go so much further. 

Rush misses the point because even if debt itself never has any consequences, unlimited spending still enables the large wasteful government he claims to be against. He’d do well to think a little harder about why he believes the things he’s long purported to believe.

Jonathan Bydlak is the founder and president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, an advocate for lower federal spending, and the creator of Follow him on Twitter @jbydlak and @Reduce_Spending.