Michael Gerson’s essay on “The Republican Identity Crisis” makes a fascinating point about “limited government” ideology.
One Republican Party—the Republican Party of movement conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the think-tank world—will argue that the “big government Republicanism” of the Bush era has been a reason for recent defeats. Like all fundamentalists, the antigovernment conservatives preach that greater influence requires a return to purity—the purity of Reaganism.
But the golden age of austerity under Reagan is a myth. During the Reagan years, big government got bigger, with federal spending reaching 23.5 percent of GDP (compared with just over 20 percent under the current president). …
… And the critics believe in a caricature of recent budgets. Well over half of President Bush’s spending increases have gone to a range of unexpected security necessities, including military imminent-danger pay, unmanned aerial vehicles and biological-weapons vaccines. … Why don’t anti-government conservatives mention spending increases on defense and homeland security when they make their critique? Because a minimalist state cannot fight a global war—so it is easier for critics to ignore the global war.
Most rightie rhetoric about “big government” fails to make a distinction between big government that is bad because it costs a lot of money or big government that is bad because it intrudes on personal liberty. And these are two entirely separate types of bad.
“Small government” conservatives tend to focus on economic freedom; they want freedom from taxation and government regulation, for example. But government intrudes in private lives in many ways. The Comstock laws, for example, came into being in the 1870s — exactly the same time that laissez faire reached its apex in the U.S., “during the age of industrialization as American factories operated with a free hand.” So a factory owner in 1874 enjoyed complete freedom to exploit his employees, but at the same time the government would not allow information on birth control to be mailed to him.
As antigovernment conservatives seek to purify the Republican Party, it is reasonable to ask if the purest among them are conservatives at all. The combination of disdain for government, a reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice is usually called libertarianism. The old conservatives had some concerns about that creed, which Russell Kirk called “an ideology of universal selfishness.” Conservatives have generally taught that the health of society is determined by the health of institutions: families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations. Unfettered individualism can loosen those bonds, while government can act to strengthen them. By this standard, good public policies—from incentives to charitable giving, to imposing minimal standards on inner-city schools—are not apostasy; they are a thoroughly orthodox, conservative commitment to the common good.
Campaigning on the size of government in 2008, while opponents talk about health care, education and poverty, will seem, and be, procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired. The moral stakes are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism—an idealism that strangles mercy.
I’d say it’s an idealism that strangles self-interest as well. “Small government” ideology is not just opposed to programs for the poor. It is opposed to programs that would help most Americans, like universal health care. It’s essentially an ideology that insists We, the People, should not use government to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility … promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Providing for the common defense is OK, however.
Andrew Sullivan took offense at Gerson’s essay.
Gerson, like many big-government and left-wing types
Translation: Gerson was a speechwriter and policy adviser to President G.W. Bush.
seems to believe that all small government conservatives are libertarians and all libertarians are swivel-eyed loons. Sign me up for that then. But a belief in the ineffable goodness and efficiency of government is every bit as ideological an attitude as thinking markets can provide a better way. It’s not just a belief in free markets per se that persuades libertarians, it’s that markets can also lead to better outcomes. In other words, there’s a happy marriage between principle and pragmatism.
If a belief in republican (small r!) government requires “a belief in the ineffable goodness and efficiency of government,” sign me up for that then. But respect for the virtues of self-government as provided by the Constitution does not require blind faith in the “ineffable goodness and efficiency of government.” Quite the opposite, actually. Citizens should understand that government can become corrupt and inefficient, because it’s up to citizens to pay attention to government and make informed choices in the voting booth.
In other words, a respect for republican government is not about trusting government, but about trusting We, the People. It’s true that the people can be fooled into making bad choices, but our form of government provides means for We, the People, to correct our mistakes eventually. Most of ’em, anyway.
But putting your trust in free markets is putting trust in … what, exactly? Chance? Greed? The benevolence of the monied classes? And if those free markets stampede off in a bad direction (as they did in the 1920s, for example), what remedy do We, the People, have?
In fact, the weight of empirical evidence that history provides us reveals that when markets and business and securities are allowed freedom from government regulation, what follows is plutocracy, exploitation of labor, corruption, and economic instability. A “happy marriage between principle and pragmatism” my ass.
The Carpetbagger thinks Gerson isn’t seeing the big picture.
Hasn’t this chasm existed in GOP politics for the better part of a generation? The libertarian wing demands less government, Republican candidates say the right things, they win, they increase the size of government anyway, and libertarians complain and demand less government again. It’s a beautiful little cycle.
What makes now different? We have a few more leading GOP voices than usual suggesting that the party lost its majority status in Congress because it wasn’t libertarian enough to inspire the base, but the facts speak for themselves — the base turned out exactly as it did the last couple of cycles. Frustrated “true” conservatives didn’t stay home in protest on Election Day; they did exactly what they’ve been doing. In 2006, it wasn’t enough, but you don’t hear anyone in leadership positions suggesting that party activists and insiders settle the broader debate “once and for all.” They’ll tinker with the message, turn Pelosi into some kind of money-generating boogeyman, and try again in ‘08. …
… The Republicans’ problems are far broader than an ideological squabble — they have an unpopular and hard-to-defend policy agenda, unpopular and weak leaders, and a record of scandal, incompetence, and mismanagement.
I still say that libertarianism and “limited government” ideology is essentially anti-democratic. It deprives We, the People of the ability to use government in our own interests. Certainly the powers of government must be limited — the power to censor, the power to search and seize property, the power to intrude on citizens’ private lives generally — but placing artificial limits on the size and functions of government doesn’t restrict government as must as it restricts the will of the people. I’m not calling for “big government” for its own sake. I’m just saying that a government should be as big (or as small) as its citizens require.
What we’ve got with the Bushies is the World of All Worlds. They’ve given us a government that violates citizens’ rights but doesn’t respond to their needs. The question should not be whether government is big or small; the question should be who does government serve? The people, or something else?
Update: See also Matt Stoller, “The Bar Fight Primary.”