The deficit has once again shouldered its way into the national conversation, at least in the rhetoric of Republican Congressman adamantly opposed to, well, anything that President Obama proposes to do. Press the average member of the GOP for a rationale for his opposition to the policies of the new administration, and, to the extent that there is a semi-cogent rationale, it will probably boil down to the deficit, to the tremendous burden we are compelling our children, grandchildren, and remoter descendants still, to shoulder, to the end that we might live more sumptuously - or at least refuse to own our own profligacy, to admit our errors - in the present. Charitably, we have a duty towards posterity, that we not impoverish them in order to live large in the now.
The trouble is that this is mere cant, the wearisome, hacktastic bloviation of cynical operators attempting to cloak their vices in the stolen raiment of virtue. No one in Washington, save Ron Paul, so far as I can determine, really cares about such quaint notions as the deficit and the putative obligation to consider posterity, as evidenced by, well, actually-existing conservatism and the Republican Party. These latter are entities that never blanched at the idea of pouring untold quantities of borrowed money down into the sand mound septic system that was the Iraq war, a war of choice - quantities, as estimated by Joseph Stiglitz, that will exceed three trillion dollars, all of them ultimately borrowed. The conservative movement and the Republican Party, moreover, greeted with squeals of ecstasy and rapture the tax cuts implemented during the first term of Bush the Younger, notwithstanding the facts that a) they had been hilariously wrong in prophesying the apocalypse when the Clinton tax increases were implemented; b) that it was only the combination of the higher marginal rates under Clinton and the pseudo-prosperity of the NASDAQ bubble of the late 90s that caused the budget deficit to shrink, and ultimately to vanish, albeit temporarily; and c) that, for reasons I have discussed previously, there is no possibility whatsoever of funding governmental operations save by hiking marginal rates on upper-income earners, since virtually all other economic groups have suffered inflation-adjusted stagnation (defined as, depending upon the statistics one favours, anything ranging from slight real declines to slight marginal increases, or something in between) since the early 70s - that's where the money is, and refusing to get that money entails a burgeoning deficit.
At this point, most conservatives will be fulminating about the evils of progressive taxation and the imperative of redoubling the commitment to small government as the complement to tax reduction. I understand those arguments, and am not entirely unsympathetic, but it must be understood that the detested welfare state, and of its taxes and pomps, is, when grasped in its historical origins - ie., according to the processes by which it garnered public support, and by which it is sustained - not so much the result of some dastardly conspiracy to overthrow everything that was good and lovely about Old America, but a response, however flawed and tainted by ambition, to the very real dislocations and instabilities generated by modern industrialism and concentrated capitalism. Most people are not libertarian supermen, and will endure only so much destructive creation before seeking such shelter as they may find in the arms of countervailing power. If the Gilded Age, for example, had been the prelapsarian state that some portray it as being, the masses would have looked at Progressives and Socialists as cranks and fools, and gone on their merry ways, to enjoy their ever-multiplying prosperity, their stable middle-class lives, and the expanding frontiers of personal freedom. They did not do these things because it was not so, and because man does not live by the opportunity for economic self-creation alone. The moral is that concentrated power and concentrated wealth are always twinned, because they are infinitely convertible, and that if one would abolish the former, one will, of necessity, have to limit and divide the latter; likewise, if one objects to the dependency and servility that the welfare state breeds, one must also object to the dependency and servility that economic concentration brings, masking it all the while as liberation - the parodic liberation of bread alone: more and cheaper stuff.
But I digress. Reality is what it is, and in reality, given that the welfare state will perdure, we're all going to shoulder a higher tax burden, the wealthiest more so. One can rue this, but ruing it is, on the deepest understanding, equivalent to ruing three or four-hundred years of Western history - modernity. Men will seek to regain a measure of the stability of which modern capitalism deprives them, and even a faux rootedness, the omnipresence of the welfare state.
None of this is to postulate that progressives truly care about the deficit, for that would be to postulate an obvious falsehood, given, well, how they actually govern. The point is that no one really cares about the deficit, and that the deficit is a political football, a talking point, a rhetorical cudgel, a cynical piece of rabble-rousing: a bit of misdirection used to make people think that we're concerned about responsibility, when all we're really concerned with is what justifies irresponsibility, for it is on this point that left and right differ.