Binding the spenders
The arguments against a constitutional amendment to require balanced budgets are various and, cumulatively, almost conclusive. Almost. The main arguments are:
The Constitution should be amended rarely and reluctantly. Constitutionalizing fiscal policy is a dubious undertaking. Unless carefully crafted, such an amendment might instead be a constant driver of tax increases. A carefully crafted amendment that minimizes this risk could not pass until Republicans have two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress, which they have not had since 1871.
There is, however, one sufficient argument for a balanced-budget amendment. It is: George Mason University's James Buchanan.
This Nobel laureate economist, who died last month at 93, pioneered the “public choice” school of analysis. Public choice theory applies economic analysis — essentially, the study of how incentives influence behavior — to politics.
Public choice analysis began in the 1960s. It demystified politics by puncturing the grand illusion that nourishes government growth. It is the fiction that elected politicians and government administrators are more nobly motivated, unselfish and disinterested than are persons acting in the private sector.
Buchanan extended the idea of the profit motive to the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats, two groups seeking to maximize power the way many people in the private sector maximize monetary profits. Public-sector actors often do this by transactions with private factions trying to get government to give them benefits, such as appropriations or tax preferences.
Critics have dismissed as mere anti-government ideology the injection by public choice theory of realism into the analysis of politics. Such critics cling to the theory that in politics and government, people do not behave as people do in markets — they supposedly are not responsive to incentives for personal aggrandizement.
Actually, Buchanan's theory supplanted an ideology — the faith in government as omniscient and benevolent. It replaced it with realism about the sociology of government and the logic of collective action. The theory's explanatory and predictive power, Buchanan wrote, derives from its “presumption that persons do not readily become economic eunuchs as they shift from market to political participation.”
Concerning the cold logic of power maximization, Buchanan was unsentimental. Concerning the naturalness of self-interested behavior, Buchanan stood in a line of thinkers that includes James Madison, the foremost realist among the Founders.
Six days after Buchanan died, House Republicans provided dismal validation of public choice theory. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., supported by Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, proposed offsetting just $17 billion of the $60 billion aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy, and doing so by cutting just 1.63 percent from discretionary government spending. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said this would “slash and burn” important programs, and the measure failed because 71 Republicans opposed it.
The political class responds to incentives of self-interest. Their acquisitiveness is not for money but for the currency of power, which they act to retain and enlarge. This class can be constrained, if at all, not by exhorting them to become disinterested but by binding them with a constitutional amendment.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.