PRESIDENT CARTER'S budget won't appear until Monday, but the quarrel over it is already taking an ugly turn. On both sides, it's being dominated by highly skewed recollections of recent American history. The White House seems to think that it is safe as long as the fiscal conservatives and the social liberals are equally angry at it. Mr. Carter would be wiser to explain more fully his strategy, and the precedents for it. At his press conference yesterday, he began to offer a reasonable defense. But he has a stronger case than he has yet made.
The movement for a constitutional amendment against budget deficits is gaining momentum on the grounds that it is human nature to want more than you can pay for. A democracy will always respond to that side of human nature, this argument goes, and therefore -- in the absence of a cast-iron constitutional rule -- it inevitably leads to inflation. But if it's a built-in defect of popular government, why did this attack of incessant inflation begin only as recently as the middle 1960s?
And then there's the cry from the opposite direction that Mr. Carter's forthcoming attempts to cut some of the social programs constitute another brutal assault on the poor and a betrayal of the tradition of conscience established by the last four Democratic presidents. But the Democratic Party's tradition, as it was refined after World War II, was established by men who did not find it necessary to run an unbroken succession of budgetary deficits. The Democrats were in the White House 16 years from that war until Mr. Carter's arrival, and in eight of those years the budget was in surplus.
There's a widespread impression that the habit of endemic, wildly inflationary deficits was sealed into American political practice by the New Deal. True, the New Deal budgets were all in deficit. But the largest of those deficits, in 1936, was slightly smaller -- in relation to the size of the national economy -- than the Ford administration's deficit in 1975. The inflationary effect of those budgets in the 1930s was extremely slight; prices were lower in 1940 than they had been in 1929, when the Depression started.
The people in Congress who speak for social conscience are now calling for another leader with the vision and strength of Harry Truman. But if you go back to the national income and product accounts, you will see that, in the seven Truman years from the end of 1945 through 1952, there were five surpluses and only two deficits.
The real trouble started with the financing of an unpopular war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson put off too long the tax to pay for it. When it finally went into effect, it produced a substantial surplus in 1969. But Richard Nixon and a Democratic Congress immediately collaborated in repealing that war tax, and the budget has been in deficit ever since, in bad years and good alike -- including the terrific boom year 1973, when a competently managed economy would have been running the biggest surplus in a generation.
But there was also a broader error at work, not only here but in Europe as well. With the very high economic growth of the 1960s, governments thought they had discovered the secret of perpetually accelerating wealth. Elated, they made vast promises to their people -- of bigger pensions, better housing, more health care and all the rest. But then the growth rates began to sputter and falter in the early 1970s. Suddenly there was no longer the high growth to pay for the promised benefits. But most governments kept paying the benefits, on a rising scale, while frantically cranking the machine to try to get it going at top speed again. It hasn't worked. By now, at the end of the 1970s, it's clear that some of the benefits are going to have to be scaled back and postponed.
The American economy was governed for many years, by presidents of both parties, with a high degree of social concern and a low rate of inflation. The reasons for the present malaise are recent and specific. As people come to understand them, they will vote for rational remedies. That process, we are optimistic enough to think, is now well under way.