The damage that austerity budgets have done to economies in Europe and elsewhere poses a problem for proponents of smaller government and lower taxes. How can they argue that cutting spending and shrinking government is such a good thing when it has it turned out so dismally for other countries? The arguments they employ to escape this problem show that they are far more committed to keeping taxes low than any other goal.
At a May 22 hearing of the Senate Budget Committee, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center argued that the composition of deficit-reduction programs is what matters. The problem with the recent deficit-reduction packages, she said, is that they relied too much on tax increases. If they had relied on spending cuts, their economies would be doing just fine and they would be more successful at getting their deficits under control.
At a June 4 hearing of the committee, Salim Furth of the Heritage Foundation made the same argument, and went further by claiming that most of the governments thought to have austerity budgets have actually increased their deficits because they increased spending by more than they raised taxes.
But this time at least one of the Senators had done his homework and had looked up the data. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island presented data from the OECD (which Furth said he was relying on) showing 15 countries in Europe did enact austerity plans (plans reducing their budget deficits) and the spending cuts outweigh the tax increases in 9 of these. In only two of these countries did tax increases make up 60 percent of more of the enacted deficit-reduction.
As Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog explains, Furth’s claim that most governments increased deficits is based on each country’s spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or to put it differently, spending as a percentage of the overall economy. Some of the countries have seen their GDP shrink so dramatically in recent years that even after serious cutbacks of public services, their spending as a percentage of GDP is higher than before the recession. (At the same hearing, Larry Summers presented a more sensible way of measuring the deficit reduction governments have enacted.)
The bottom line is that governments in Europe and elsewhere are cutting the deficit mainly by cutting spending, and the economy has struggled as a result. Blaming sluggish economic growth on high taxes is simply wrong.