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Small government conservatism in big government America

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 28, 2005

Do liberty and less government remain serious priorities for the modern American conservative movement? This question once would have been as absurd as asking if the pope is Catholic, but the decline of anti-statism on the right and the explosive growth of the federal government under a Republican president and Congress have created many doubters.

Last week, Ryan Sager reported on Tech Central Station that conservatives assembled at CPAC were disdainful of libertarians. This provoked some debate about how important size-of-government issues really are to the contemporary American right. Andrew Sullivan weighed in with the argument that most conservative outlets are content to nitpick while government gets bigger; Ramesh Ponnuru countered on National Review Online that big-government conservatism is a lamentable but rational response to existing political circumstances. Radley Balko wrote in TCS that a lot the young people he encountered at CPAC weren't so gung-ho for big government after all. As this back-and-forth was going on, I participated in an America's Future Foundation panel discussion on the question of whether it even makes sense for the fusionist alliance between conservatives and libertarians to continue.

There are too many details in these free-wheeling exchanges to do justice to all of them in this space. But one recurring theme is worth exploring: How do we make efforts to shrink government politically feasible?

Does government continue to grow when Republicans are in power because the GOP and its conservative boosters have sold out? Or is the problem attributable to the democratic reality that most Americans love big government, especially when it is giving them freebies? As Ponnuru put it: "There are more voters who care deeply about keeping the Small Business Administration in operation than there are voters who care deeply about shutting it down."

Actually, the problem is a little bit of both. Yes, the constituencies for most government programs outnumber the constituency for smaller government. But it's also undeniably the case that Republicans are pitching their platform in much more statist terms than when they rode into town with their "revolutionary" rhetoric a decade ago.

Back then, the GOP's electoral victories were ascribed to the "Leave Us Alone" coalition. Grover Norquist explained the internal consistency of this coalition thus: "Conservative leaders can meet in a room, and the taxpayers can agree not to throw condoms at the children of Christians and orthodox Jews; the gun owners can agree not to raise everyone else's taxes; the Christians can agree not to steal anyone's guns; and they all can agree not to take anyone's property."

Every one of these groups remains a major Republican constituency. But instead of offering them greater freedom from government encroachments, the GOP today woos them with federal largesse. Religious conservatives are having dollars waved in front of them in the form of the faith-based initiatives; conservative parents are being promised national education standards through No Child Left Behind rather than school choice and freedom from public school condom-distribution programs; even tax cuts now coincide with mounting budget deficits rather than existing within an economic program that promises to balance the federal budget.

Unlike Beltway policy wonks and the ink-and-pixel-stained wretches who write for political publications, most voters are not systematic political thinkers. They usually vote in accordance with their perceived self-interest and their personal values. Until Newt Gingrich's meltdown in the late 1990s, the conservative wing of the Republican Party presented the federal government as an aggressor against those interests and values. Now it promises that a GOP-dominated Washington will be their defender.

After 9/11, conservatives had an excellent opportunity to refocus the federal government on its constitutional functions: national defense, securing the borders, intelligence-gathering for national-security purposes, the protection of human lives and property. These were all areas where Washington had dropped the ball; all areas made more relevant by international terrorism; all areas where federal spending had dropped relative to expenditures that most conservatives opposed; and finally, all tasks the American people trusted conservatives more than liberals to fulfill.

Instead conservatives, enamored with President Bush and the Republican Congress, joined in the indiscriminate aggrandizement of federal power that took place across the political spectrum as the American people sought safety from future attacks. And this only magnified a trend that had been ongoing since the GOP was burned in the government shut-downs and a failed bid to reform Medicare during the Clinton administration. Many Republicans then decided to shelve the small-government rhetoric and instead enjoy pulling the levers of power. M. Stanton Evans presciently cracked that many conservatives arrive in Washington understanding that it's a sewer only to begin treating it as a hot tub.

It was always going to difficult to keep conservative anti-statism politically viable after welfare reform stemmed some of big government's excesses. The programs targeted in welfare reform benefited the poor rather than middle class. They shipped money to the indolent rather than those who worked. And they offended the moral sensibilities of millions as evidence mounted that welfare as we knew it subsidized single motherhood, out-of-wedlock births and a semi-permanent underclass predisposed to crime and a host of other social pathologies.

The welfare-state programs that remained were far more expensive and threaten to grow into a much bigger drain on the economy than the dreaded Aid to Families with Dependent Children ever could have been. But they benefit working, middle-class Americans and their negative social consequences are far less obvious.

Yet these social repercussions are nevertheless real. Government programs from Social Security to subsidized daycare do weaken families by taxing their support systems and replacing their core functions. Conservatives need to be making these arguments, even if it takes as long to seep into the public consciousness as the case for welfare reform did after the New Deal and Great Society.

Efforts to reform Social Security and cultivate the new investor class hold promise as ways to build a constituency for free markets and small government. But past conservative successes, whether under Ronald Reagan or Newt Gingrich, have relied on tying the corrosive nature of big government to specific salient problems faced by the American people rather than appeals to more abstract Hayekian reasoning.

The present political climate is favorable to big government. Changing this climate will require bold new approaches, but also a willingness to make principled arguments and apply old principles to changing circumstances.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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