Answers exist. It’s not in the national interest to subsidize farmers, because food would be produced at low cost without subsidies. It’s not in the national interest to subsidize Americans, through Social Security and Medicare, for the last 20 or 25 years of their lives because healthier people live longer and the huge costs make the budget unmanageable. It’s not in the national interest to subsidize mass transit, because most benefits are enjoyed locally: If the locals want mass transit, they should pay for it.
As we debate these questions, groups will inevitably promote their self-interest. But in doing so, they should have to meet exacting standards that their self-interest also serves the broader national interest. Having received or been promised benefits does not create a right to them. At most, it justifies a pragmatic claim for gradual termination. Bowles and Simpson provided few guideposts. They mainly wanted their numbers to add up.
The biggest blunder of their approach involved huge proposed cuts in defense, about a fifth of federal spending. National security is government’s first job. Bowles and Simpson reduced it proportionately with all other discretionary spending as if there’s no difference between a dollar for defense and a dollar for art subsidies.