Way back in the early days of the conservative movement, it was assumed that Federal spending was both unsustainable and damaging to the country. Cutting the size and scope of government was their thing. The tool they eventually settled on to reduce Federal spending was taxes. If they made high taxes so unpopular with the public, the Left could not keep raising taxes. If they could not raise taxes to cover their spending, they would eventually have to yield to the mathematics.
Obviously, that never happened. The big tax reforms of the 1980’s did simplify taxes and lower rates on rich people, but revenues remained stable. At the same time, spending kept growing. One of the unspoken truths of fiscal policy is the percent of GDP that is consumed by Federal taxes does not change much of time. The range is between 15% to 18%, depending on when tax policy was changed. This is the logic of the flat tax. One rate, no deductions and no more IRS.
Spending, of course, keeps going up, no matter who is in office. Despite their rhetoric, the Republicans are the big spenders. In the 1980’s they had to spend on the military to win the Cold War. In the Bush years it was the crusades against Islam. It is only when a Democrat is in the White House that the Republicans get tight-fisted, and even that is mostly ceremonial, as we have seen with the last Covid bill. It turns out that there is no relationship between taxes and spending.
Another shibboleth of conservatives is that eventually the bond markets will force a haircut on the government. The so-called bond vigilantes will drive up interest rates, which will make borrowing more expensive. The theory here is that there is a hard limit on debt. Once that limit is reached, spending must go down or taxes must go up in order to reconcile the books. Like the belief that taxes will curtail spending, faith in the mythological bond vigilantes has been misplaced.
Of course, you can go back further and find arguments from the hard money crowd about the limits of fiat currency. There was an argument in the old days that said fiat currency not only unleashes spending and inflation, but it eventually makes the money worthless, thus bankrupting the state. We have been off the gold standard for a very long time now and none of the predictions came true. The spending continues, the borrowing continues, and the money creation continues.
The gold bugs have now moved to crypto currency as the savior. Once everyone is using digital money that is outside the control of the state, then we end up with a de facto gold standard. That will force fiscal discipline on the state, which means radically reducing spending. The fact that this will never happen has so far not dimmed the enthusiasm, but like all of the other schemes to cut spending, this one will prove no match for the animal cunning of the ruling class.
There is another theory related to money. The monetarists have always argued that sound monetary policy would impose discipline on the state. Since central banks are independent of the state, they can maintain a stable money supply. While not the same as a gold standard, sound monetary policy has similar effects. That has turned out to be a myth as well. The Fed is now captive to the spending frenzy of Washington, finding new ways to underwrite trillions in new outlays.
Now, there are those who will keep lighting candles for their favorite theory. The gold bugs, for example, are sure hyperinflation is around the next corner. The bond vigilantes are similarly sure the next crisis will confirm their theory. The truth is though, none of these theories turned out to be true. The official debt is $28T, but that excludes things like Social Security. The real debt obligations of the Federal government are incalculable. No one knows and no one seems to care.
The lesson of the last half century is one the monetarists learned from the battles over the gold standard. If the ruler is so corrupt you need hard money to control him, your ruler is corrupt enough to find a way around the limits of hard money. It turns out our rulers are more than capable of conniving around every limit put before them. They have reached levels of corruption that were though impossible half a century ago. The display being put on now suggest they are just getting warmed up.
This rather shabby track record should raise a question. That is, is the field of economics just pseudoscientific nonsense? It has lots of complexity and lots of very clever solutions to the complex problems it unearths, but outside of the most basic of concepts like supply and demand, economics is not very useful. In all of the important things, it turns out to be wrong. Astrologers have a better record than economists, because they know they are grifters, not scientists.
Putting that aside, the lesson here is that contra the libertarians, economics is downstream from politics. No amount of fiddling with the tax code can fix the defects of the political class. Even further, the right people in a corrupt system cannot correct the defects of the corrupt system. This is why the people come and go in Washington, but the corruption rolls on unimpeded. In the great chain of causality, economics is the last link in that chain. It is the final effect of a chain of many causes.
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