The Wrecking Cousins: Part 2
As warned/promised , I'm using a few blog posts this week to show parallels between Canada's Conservatives and the U.S. brand of conservatism described in Tom Frank's book, The Wrecking Crew.
The first post dealt with current events -- political distortion of bureaucrats' advice and the use of direct-mail letters to whip the public into conspiracy-theory fury. In this instalment, how some good old-fashioned Reaganomics seem to have seeped into Canada.
Frank writes of how former U.S. president Ronald Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, acknowledged how the conservatives could smash the state by bloating it first with record deficits. Government-by-sabotage, he calls it.
Stockman was remarkably candid about this: Once the tax cuts had been enacted, the conservatives would have the "craven politicians pinned to the wall. They would have to dismantle [the government's] bloated, wasteful and unjust spending enterprises -- or risk national ruin." The Reagan tax cuts, all by themselves, would thus be a "frontal attack on the welfare state."
Let us understand Stockman's confession for what it is: a plan for government by sabotage. Other high-profile conservatives celebrated the gigantic Reagan deficits -- for example, Milton Friedman, the dean of free-market economists -- but in Stockman's thinking we see the political logic of deficits most clearly. Deficits were a way to smash a liberal state that voters could not be persuaded to part with otherwise.
Nah, they wouldn't try that in Canada, would they? Let's take a look at this not-sufficiently-noticed Canadian Press story from 2008, in which Stephen Harper's old mentor and chief of staff, Tom Flanagan, applauds the Conservative government for getting rid of surpluses that might be used to build up (rather than tear down) the federal government.
"They've gradually re-engineered the system. I'm quite impressed with it," said Flanagan, a political strategist who ran the 2004 Conservative campaign.
"They're boxing in the ability of the federal government to come up with new program ideas . . . The federal government is now more constrained, the provinces have more revenue, and conservatives should be happy."
And indeed, nowadays, just a few years after Flanagan was so pleased with the surplus-draining work of his old friend, the federal deficit now stands at $56-billion and Harper is still not blinking on corporate tax cuts, as my colleague Les Whittington wrote recently.