The Conservative dilemma
British philosopher and writer Roger Scruton’s new book, “How to Be a Conservative,” was recently excerpted in the Wall Street Journal (Notable & Quotable, Oct. 10, Wall Street Journal). It succinctly nails the problem facing the Right in an America dominated by Progressive feel-good agendas and awash in social distractions.
“Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.
“The work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating,” writes Scruton, while the work of creation is “slow, laborious and dull.” He adds that too often the Conservatives’ position is “true but boring, that of their opponent exciting but false.”
It follows, Scruton says, that conservatives are at a marked disadvantage when they champion hard-edged common sense in an age of soft, distracted thinking and sprawling, unaccountable Big Government giveaways.
Anybody who watched the vice-presidential debate two years ago understands the dilemma. Congressman Paul Ryan gamely attempted to address our government’s addiction to spending money it doesn’t have, money which it may one day not even be able to borrow. The earnest deficit hawk labored in vain to spark a dialogue with Vice President Joe Biden about a looming national catastrophe. He might just as well have been teaching algebra to a golden retriever. While the dog might sit as agreed, you’d be a fool to expect superior test scores, or even the student’s undivided attention. But at least a trained canine might be respectful of your efforts. Not so Joe.
As Ryan spoke, a mugging, eye-rolling Biden acted out just a few feet away. The vice president smirked, interrupted and patronized in turn, when he wasn’t sharing a conspiratorial wink with the moderator.
Biden might be a boor, and perhaps a fiscal ignoramus to boot, but this lifetime pol with the maniacal Cheshire grin is at home around electoral machinery. Joker Joe knew that the civics wonks who had tuned in to watch Biden v. Ryan had dropped the remote and nodded off even before the congressman had finished explaining the three-card monte that is Social Security.
But let’s hear Ryan out. The nation’s debt in 2008, under the stewardship of Bush the Younger, was north of $10.5 trillion — a staggering sum. (Recall that the “unpatriotic” growth of the debt was singled out for especial derision in the 2008 campaign by that fiscal firebrand, Barack Obama.)
Bush (in concert with a Democratic-controlled Congress) took eight years to run the debt up by $5 trillion. Under Barack (his campaign concerns suddenly forgotten), the debt zoomed another unpatriotic $5 trillion in a mere four years. Mr. Obama’s spending was jet-propelled by a Democratic trifecta: the party held both houses of Congress in addition to winning the presidency, meaning the Dems could do almost anything they wanted. And they did. By March of 2012, U.S. borrowing hit $15.5 trillion. As a percentage of GDP, it had reached 103 percent. For the first time since World War II, we were borrowing more than the size of our entire economy.
The soothsayers at the Bureau of Economic Analysis expect that by 2016, after eight years of Obama, the gross public debt (i.e., marketable and intra-government securities combined) will top $18.5 trillion. Experts assure us we’re solidly on track to exceed $20 trillion by 2020. Ryan wasn’t just talking out of his hat.
Many suppose that a fiscal Rubicon of sorts will be crossed well before 2020, if it hasn’t been crossed already. Indeed, the 2016 debt figure itself may turn out to be understated. Not factored into that datum are such game-changers as a remobilized neo-Soviet military swaggering around with its shirt off, Ebola on the set of Dallas, and really, really crazy Muslims with their Noggin of the Month Club.
Those eyebrow-raising issues can be expected to further nudge a national debt whose trajectory already is literally off the graph.
To recap: the sober Paul (Revere) Ryan was absolutely spot on. The debt is a dangerous runaway freight train, and over two centuries of near-uninterrupted American growth and progress is poised to launch into the River Kwai when (not if) we formally renege on our bills. But the congressman’s delivery on this numbers-intensive subject was unavoidably sleep-inducing, and his message therefore dismissible. Ryan’s lightweight interlocutor, by contrast — class clown Biden — offered nothing constructive on the looming debt disaster at all, but he did so with entertaining panache.
The game went to the vice president. Mr. Scruton would not have been surprised.
Bill Boyl lives in Nevada City.
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