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Rand Paul wants the government to do much, much less for the poor

Darren McCollester/Getty

In his announcement speech, Ted Cruz asked Americans to imagine a different country. But Rand Paul has done Cruz one better: he's actually budgeted for a different country.

In 2012, 2013, and 2014, Paul released detailed budgets outlining his vision for America. In these budgets, Paul does something politicians almost never do: he forces himself to map his rhetoric against reality — and the reality of Paul's budget, as my colleague Dylan Matthews wrote, is that it's "the most radical vision of limited government ever presented by a major American presidential candidate."

Rand Paul's America spends nothing or nearly nothing on foreign aid, and vastly less on scientific and medical research. His America moves to a regressive flat tax, in part because Paul is skeptical that progressive taxation is even constitutional. In Paul's America, the government does far less for the poor: the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are basically eliminated; there are no Title I grants, IDEA grants to fund special education, or Section 8 housing vouchers; Obamacare is repealed; and Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and food stamps see more than a trillion dollars in cuts.

In Rand Paul's America, the government really is smaller: Paul cuts the budget of the National Institutes of Health by 20 percent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by 20 percent, NASA by 25 percent, the Justice Department by 28 percent, the Environmental Protection Agency by 29 percent, the Department of Transportation by 49 percent, the National Science Foundation by 62 percent, and the State Department by 71 percent. He gets rid of the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs. He substantially privatizes both Social Security and Medicare.

"If we nominate a candidate who is simply Democrat Light, what’s the point?" Paul asked in his announcement speech. And compared with Paul, most Republicans look a lot more like Democrats. Paul Ryan's budgets have been, by any measure, ambitious plans to overhaul the federal government along conservative lines. But as Matthews points out, the gap in spending between Rand Paul's budget and Paul Ryan's budget is almost as large as the gap in spending between Paul Ryan's budget and the Senate Democrats' budget.

Paul deserves enormous credit for producing these budgets. Most politicians hide from the choices implied by their rhetoric. Paul has made those choices, and made them in public, in detail, so they can be seen and debated.

But Paul also needs to answer for these budgets. He talks often about his fear that America is leaving its poor behind. He proposes "economic freedom zones" — in effect, geographically targeted tax cuts — for the poorest areas of the country. "Can you imagine what a billion-dollar stimulus could do for Detroit or for Appalachia?" he asks. But his budget stands at odds with this glittering vision.

The money that flows through the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit and Medicaid and Title I grants and Obamacare and food stamps act as a massive, continuous stimulus to these areas. Wiping out those funds would be a huge hit to demand. It would be a massive anti-stimulus targeted at the poorest people who are clustered in the poorest parts of the country.

What will happen to the groceries in Detroit after Paul's cuts to food stamps? What will happen to the schools in Appalachia after he slices through education grants?

As for Paul's economic freedom zones, why should the government be helping poor cities rather than poor people? What sense does it make to give massive financial aid to Detroit while taking money away from low-income Americans who live in Ann Arbor? Why should the government subsidize people to stay in places where there aren't jobs rather than move to places where there are jobs?

For that matter, what will happen to the poor elsewhere? In his 2012 budget, Paul zeroed out foreign aid, including military aid to Egypt and Israel. In subsequent budgets, he shrank all foreign aid to $5 billion. "Let’s quit building bridges in foreign countries and use that money to build some bridges here at home," he said in his announcement speech. But a lot of that aid does a lot of good.

President George W. Bush's PEPFAR program for AIDS relief, for instance, directly funds antiretroviral treatment for more 4.5 million people. Paul's announcement speech begins with a touching story of doing eye surgeries in Guatemala as part of a medical mission. The good Paul was able to do moved him deeply. "This is why I became a doctor," he said to himself. Is Dr. Paul really going to take AIDS drugs from 4.5 million people? Is that why he became a politician?

The debate over Paul has mostly focused on the places his libertarian instincts pull him to the left of the Republican Party: civil liberties, mass imprisonment, foreign policy. But as interesting, and perhaps more common, are the places where his instincts pull him far to the right of the party. Paul's budget is a disaster for the poor, for government-funded basic scientific research, for virtually every major government agency.

Plenty of Republicans talk about small government, but when the time comes to budget, they rarely want to do all that much to shrink government. Even Paul Ryan's cuts tend to be either vague or pushed far into the future. Paul's budgets offer a level of detail and specificity for which he should be lauded. But they also paint a radically different vision of what the American government should do that will leave many wounded in its wake.