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The unveiling of the Trump administration’s budget, with its enormous cuts to hundreds of government programs, has prompted a lot of responses like this one. The budget is the brainchild of Mick Mulvaney, the head of the Office of Management and Budget. The cuts Mulvaney seeks are so extreme that many in the media seem incapable of taking them seriously, hence this talk about “wish lists.”

In fact, calling it a “wish list” just emphasizes how extreme it is. In a letter to Santa, you ask for normal stuff and some outrageous stuff, knowing that if you were to happen to get that outrageous stuff on Christmas morning, you’d be pleased beyond your wildest dreams. With this budget, Mulvaney has communicated his wildest dreams, and we would be wise to take those seriously.

When commentators say “even Republicans won’t cut PBS” or “SNAP is such a small part of the budget, though,” they make a fundamental mistake in assuming that these programs – and the orientation towards taxation and the role of government they suggest – are somehow fundamental to American society and values. If we look at the broad scope of American history, that’s simply not the case.

Most of the programs targeted in this budget are creations of the New Deal and the Great Society, meaning that they’ve existed for eighty years at most. That feels like a long time, but it’s really not, even in a young country like the United States. Moreover, it’s important to remember that there has been a strong current of opposition to these programs and department for as long as they have existed, as our Great Society week demonstrated. Mulvaney’s budget is the latest entry into a longer (Anglo-)American conversation about two questions that have been with us since before the founding of the republic:

  1. What is the job of the (federal) government?
  2. Are taxes good and right or fundamentally immoral?

Mulvaney argues that this budget considers the people paying taxes, unlike earlier approaches which have had too singular a focus on the people who benefit from these tax-funded programs. To him, this is a moral stance, echoing Calvin Coolidge’s 1920s argument that taxes were a fundamental restriction of personal freedom: “The object sought is not merely a cutting down of public expenditures. That is only the means. Tax reduction is the end.”

This might sound jarring to some people, the idea that reducing taxes is a fundamental goal. Most of the time these days, these sorts of program cuts are couched in language like “times are tough, we have to make cuts,” or “it’s a balancing act,” leaving open the possibility that in more flush economic times, they might be restored. While that sentiment has been expressed at times during the discussion of this budget, Mulvaney has expressly framed this as a budget that seeks to address the wrongs being perpetuated against taxpaying Americans through taxation.

It is important to recognize that the belief that taxes are a restriction on personal freedom isn’t a new idea, nor did it originate with Ronald Reagan or Calvin Coolidge. It’s also important to recognize that it is and has long been a real and deeply-held belief by many in America. We should not write off Mulvaney’s fundamental moral opposition to taxes as outside of the mainstream of American values.

Of course, everyone pays taxes, but Mulvaney’s framework implicitly suggests a second problem with taxation that sounds more familiar. This second problem is that there is an imbalance between what people pay in taxes and what they get back; it’s not just that taxation, takes from the rich, but that it takes from them and gives to the poor.

In this, Mulvaney echoes a more familiar theme in American political life, that there are makers and there are takers, and subsidizing the takers by taxing the makers is wrong. As the statement of purpose for the 1960s conservative youth movement Young Americans for Freedom frames it:

That when government interferes with the work of the market economy, it tends to reduce the moral and physical strength of the nation; that when it takes from one man to bestow on another, it diminishes the incentive of the first, the integrity of the second, and the moral autonomy of both…

Again, we see this language of personal and national moral strength echoed in Mulvaney’s words, and in some of the provisions of the budget. Mulvaney argues this will be an “America First” budget, a “hard power budget,” a budget that will grow the economy at rates most economists deem impossible. To that end, this budget makes it clear there’s no room in America for those who have “strength” but are unwilling to use it by allowing states to impose work requirements on those using federal programs like SNAP, especially those who are “able-bodied,” and have no dependents. Allowing those people to take government benefits without being forced to contribute, in Mulvaney’s conception, is simply perpetuating weakness.

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[It should be noted that this budget also takes millions of dollars away from programs that assist people with disabilities, including Social Security. That says something profound, I think, but we’ll leave the Trump administration’s Social Darwinism for a later post.]

This language of the “undeserving poor,” the “lazy,” those who take but are unwilling to contribute is also as old as America itself, and far more mainstream than Mulvaney’s stance against taxes on moral grounds.

All this is to say that if you are someone opposed to elements of this budget, you should not assume that history is on your side and will preserve those elements. That things are one way and have been that way for a while is no guarantee against significant historical change; just ask slaveowners in 1865 . More pointedly, though, it is unwise to assume that there are broadly-held, fundamentally American values about taxation and the role of government that will carry the day. There’s no fundamental American truth to rest on here, only those willing to invest in making their argument.

 

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