In my mind, conservative politics rest on two ideological poles - the present is guided by the past and the world should be managed as it is, not as it should be.
In the current financial crisis, the Republican party's favorite zombie legislation has risen again - the balanced budget amendment. It has been lurking since the 80s and like any good monster seems to pop out of the shadows just as things seem the scariest.
But is it a conservative idea? Modern politics would say, yes. Certainly, you could make the argument that the only way to deal with the world as it is would be to control spending and due to the lack of fiscal fortitude in the nation's Capitol, the only sure method is to put it in black and white in the U.S. Constitution.
However, if we take my thesis at the beginning and apply the two poles of conservatism, we arrive at a very different answer.
Practicality first. Does a balanced budget amendment actually deal with the world as it is or does it attempt to mold the world into a vision of what we want.
Steven Taylor of Outside The Beltway dives deep into the idea of a federal balanced budget and concludes it is practically impossible.Everyone wants the federal government to work like a household budget. Although it is a nice analogy and makes an easy talking point, it in no way is reality. Unlike your budget which is based on a paycheck where the amount remains virtually the same and arrives on a regular basis, federal revenue gyrates wildly based on many external factors. The Feds have a general idea of how much money is coming, but no real idea until it actually arrives. And let's not even venture down the rabbit hole of what happens if the ledger doesn't balance at the end of the year (here's a hint, the courts would get involved, what fun!)
That's one pole knocked from the tent. Perhaps it can stand on the remaining support.
Here's a fun way to win a drink in a bar bet. Ask someone how many times the U.S. has been debt free*. If they answer in any way except "exactly once", drink up!
The year was 1835. The nation was led by a man who hated debt and despised the central U.S. Bank. He proceeded to slash the Federal government, sold Federal holdings such as public lands and refused to re-authorize the central bank.
It worked. By the end of 1835, President Andrew Jackson managed for the first and only time to completely balance the budget. No debt. None.
Two years later, following financial chaos as state banks issued there own specie and speculation went wild., the country plunged into a depression, the panic of 1837, and federal debt returned but at 10 times the previous level.
The depression was not directly the result of the leveling of the debt but there is little doubt it exacerbated the crisis.
So, the one time we actually balanced the ledger, instead of jubilee, we had disaster. Does this sound like using the past to guide the present?
The U.S. has always had debt (except for those two unfortunate years in the 1830s). We had it under Washington on day one, we had it through Presidents, bad, good or indifferent. We have it under Obama today and I guarantee we'll have it under his successor.
Debt is not a good thing, but it is not a bad thing either. Modern financial systems, from the small business that depends on a line of credit to maintain payroll, up to the massive federal government, depend on debt to function. To remove it would be akin to removing all the oil from an engine. The wiser course would be to manage the level so it neither overfills to spatter everything nor falls to low, causing parts to seize.
Instead of advocating such a course of management and practicality, modern Republicans want to place debt in stark binary terms, then codify that cold equation in the fabric of our greatest law. They desire to do this despite the lessons of history and despite the great unknowns of the future.
This is not conservatism. This is radicalism.
* I understand that you could technically have a balanced budget amendment and still carry debt, however that does not reflect the context of what is promoting the current version of the BBA