A progressive approach to fiscal responsibility
Nov 17, 2010

A progressive approach to fiscal responsibility

There is a pervasive mentality in our society that fiscal responsibility is the domain of the political right. Instead, the question of fiscal responsibility should be seen as outside the question of the scope of government which is an important question in dividing the political spectrum. Moreover, fiscal responsibility firmly follows from the kind of sustainable and egalitarian ideals typically advocated for by the political left.

Let us first dispel the notion of fiscal responsibility being related to the classic political spectrum regarding the scope of government.  When considering this question, the left typically argues for higher taxation and higher spending while the right for lower taxation and lower spending. Since the deficit is defined as the difference between the two, neither is intrinsically more or less likely to cause deficits. One can spend an enormous amount but if one taxes sufficiently there will be no deficit and likewise one can tax very little but if one doesn't spend much again no deficit. So the idea that either side of the political spectrum has an ideological monopoly on fiscal responsibility is nonsense and instead it should be seen as outside of this dichotomy.

We can back this up by simply looking at the history where we see the Bush government increasing military spending while cutting taxes resulted in changing from a surplus to record deficits. This was surpassed only by Obama ramping up spending while cutting taxes further and making an even larger deficit (although given recession based Keynesian spending this may not be entirely a fair comparison). The point is neither side has much historical merit to claim fiscal responsibility as being staunchly theirs.

That said, I think we can establish the merits of fiscal responsibility based on genuine progressive ideals. The first aspect to consider is sustainability. In order to sustain a social system - such as social security - into the future it necessitates being fiscally responsible in the long term. Structurally increasing deficits prevent the creating and maintaining socially valuable institutions. Much in the same way progressives might advocate for sustainability of the environment from pollution, or sustainability of resources from fish stocks to energy, so to does sustainability apply to the question of deficits. Believing in the value of governmental social systems should increase, not decrease, our desire to do it in a sustainable way.

Secondly, we have the fundamental liberal mantra of equality. It is often overlooked, but one component of treating all people equally is treating them equally in time as well. One generation should not profit at the expense of another. Much like sustainability, I have previously talked about these intergenerational justice issues with regards to environmentalism, resource depletion but also fiscal responsibility. When we allow for rampant deficits with no medium term or even long term solutions it pushes the costs of policies into the future and even onto other generations of people. This effect gets amplified by demographic changes of an aging population which further puts pressure on the new generations financing the social safety nets. By acknowledging an egalitarian approach that treats people of different ages and generations as the same, it pressures us to accept fiscal responsibility as an immediate consequence.

By considering fiscal responsibility in terms of these core progressive ideals of equality and sustainability we can quickly deduce its importance. As such, we can not only combat the narrative of the left being uncaring about fiscal responsibility but we can work to actually implement fiscal responsibility into the policies we advocate for.

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