What Fiscal Conservatism Means

Andrew Sullivan has been arguing for the past few days that, just because Bush has failed to make sweeping budget cuts during his time in office, doesn’t mean that small-government fiscal conservatism has been discredited as an ideology. Strictly speaking, that’s accurate, I guess, although I’d like to see more people start discrediting fiscal conservatism, because if a Republican ever came to power who was more willing to cut government programs than George W. Bush, it would be catastrophic.

Just to get beyond numbers here, Rose Aguilar has a good piece in Alternet today that does some reporting on what many of the government discretionary programs that pundits like Sullivan want to cut actually mean for real-life people. Here’s an example:

Every month, 80-year-old Sally Shaver pays someone to drive her to the Harvest Hope Food Bank in Columbia, S.C., to pick up a box of fresh produce, baked goods, dry cereals, juice, canned goods and cheese. “It really helps me out because after paying for my rent, phone bill and medication, I barely have enough for food,” she says. “If I could work, I would, but I have an artificial knee and a pacemaker, and I can’t get around.

Shaver, who worked as a nurse’s aide for most of her life, brings in $451 a month in social security. Her fixed income qualifies her for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which is designed to improve the health and nutrition of low-income senior citizens, pregnant women, postpartum mothers, infants and children.

Last year, CSFP provided 536,196 people with a monthly box of food. Bush’s proposed budget for 2007 calls for a nationwide elimination of the entire program.

Now from reading Sullivan’s recent posts, I take it his brand of “fiscal conservatism” would preserve all the “good” programs for the poor—perhaps like the one above—while cutting all the “bad” stuff, like agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare and entitlements for the middle class and the like. (“[T]he bottom line,” writes Sullivan, “is that the middle class and the prosperous elderly are far too pampered by government in this country.”)

That’s all well and good in theory—I’d love to see corporate welfare ended, too—but in practice, when “fiscal conservatives” come to power, it’s only programs like the CSFP that ever get put on the chopping block, partly because 80-year-old Sally Shaver doesn’t have an army of lobbyists working in D.C. That’s how fiscal conservatives are always going to operate—cut programs for the poor while keeping their grip on power by catering to business interests. There’s no “magical” fiscal conservatism that will somehow get voted into office someday and do all the things Sullivan would like to see.