Are Conservatives Really Ready to Default on America’s Debt?

If economic catastrophe is in the range of possibilities, why would they risk it? Is beating President Obama that important?

One of conservatism’s really great beliefs (I’m serious about this) is about the unknowability of the future: That well-intentioned actions can have big unintended consequences; once those butterfly’s wings start flappin’, there’s no telling where the hurricane might pop up. For such folks, limiting government is just a way of trying to limit the damage that government can do.

The problem with modern American conservatism is that it so rarely applies its own best insights at the moment of truth.

Take the debt ceiling fight. We’ve been told for weeks and months that if the United States breeches the debt ceiling, it could have horrifying ramifications across the world. An international economy that leans somewhat heavily on the steadiness of the full faith and credit of the United States could be upended in a fashion that might make the 2008 financial crisis look like a vacation.

And yet: There are suddenly a number of conservatives telling us these days that the US can hit the debt limit without catastrophic consequences to the U.S. or world economy.

Here’s Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida: “I think, personally, [not raising the debt ceiling] would bring stability to the world markets.”

And here’s Power Line’s John Hinderaker, urging House Republicans to extract concessions from President Obama, and who believes the U.S. could avoid default even if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. “If not, Republicans should stand pat: the Democrats can’t raise the debt ceiling without them. Let the chips fall where they may. There will be no default, the sky won’t fall, and maybe we finally will bring wasteful government spending under control.”

Most distressingly, here’s Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia, who believes that a default would be painful—and welcomes the pain: “I will remind you that this group of renegades that decided that they wanted to break from the crown in 1776 did great damage to the economy of the colonies,” Griffith said. “They created the greatest nation and the best form of government, but they did damage to the economy in the short run.”

It’s a great big world. Despite all the many voices arrayed against them, perhaps these few conservatives are right. But we don’t know, do we?

My question to those conservatives, then, is this: Given the possibility of unintended consequences from radical action—we’ve not breached the debt ceiling before—and given that “massive economic catastrophe” is at least in the range of possible consequences for the default, why would you want to risk finding out? What goals do you have that are worth the risk of untold pain and suffering it might cause?

To be fair, not every conservative is on board with the “debt limit doesn’t matter” line of thinking. Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute wrote last week about “the foolishness of default denialism”:

 “The federal government would have to make big cuts in its regular outlays to eliminate the budget deficit instantly, and reduce its payments by a third. Individuals who depend on entitlement payments, federal workers who receive their paychecks from the government, and a wide variety of others who engage in transaction with the federal government would be hit by big financial setbacks. These would sum up to a total fiscal drag of 4.2 percent of GDP(annualized), according to Goldman Sachs, throwing the U.S. right back into recession. And that is before financial markets start panicking, equity markets crash, and credit dries up.

So the good news is that there are still Republicans who are unwilling to risk the world economy just to deal President Obama a defeat. Are there enough of them? Or are we so far down the rabbit hole at this point that conservatism can’t be defined by its old philosophies, but almost entirely by its opposition to the president? We’re about to find out. God help us.