Why Limited Government?

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.

Gerson continues,

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.”

“Stop the War by Stopping.”

James Carroll writes in today’s Boston Globe:

Was the first act of war followed by the first act of denial? The story of Cain (“a tiller of the ground”) and Abel (“a keeper of sheep”) is a parable of primordial conflict between settled farmers and nomadic herders, and the lessons are timeless. Each warring group claims to have justice on its side, and believes that the way to peace is through conquest. War is always fought in the name of justice-and-peace. But peace achieved through war inevitably leads not to justice, but to conditions that cause the next war. History is the record of that succession. Victory through violence is the way to further violence.

I don’t think it’s been true throughout human history that war is always fought in the name of justice-and-peace, but I’m not aware of any war of the past century or so in which the justice-and-peace rationale wasn’t waved about by somebody. That’s not to say that justice-and-peace was the aggressors’ motivation behind all modern wars. In fact, I doubt that justice-and-peace is ever the true motivation behind initiating a war, just the excuse. But most of the time the people making that excuse don’t see that it’s just an excuse. They’ve talked themselves into believing their own excuse.

We might call these people “fools.” We might also call them “neocons.”

I agree with Carroll when he writes, “But peace achieved through war inevitably leads not to justice, but to conditions that cause the next war. History is the record of that succession.” If you step back and look at all of human history, time and time again the seeds of war were sown by a previous war. This is not to say that there aren’t other factors, but nearly always those “other factors” were issues that might have been resolved by other means.

Many who read the sentence “Victory through violence is the way to further violence” will bring up World War II. The victory over Japan, for example, was achieved after terrible violence that included two nuclear bombs. Yet that violence did not result in eternal enmity between the U.S. and Japan. Doesn’t that prove Carroll is wrong? No; it proves that this is one of the greatest anomalies of world history. A great many factors had to come together very precisely to create this anomaly. These factors, IMO, the manner of the U.S. occupation and the Buddhist-Confucian foundations of Japanese ethics. Needless to say, this happy confluence is not present in Iraq.

The lesson to be taken from Japan is not that a violent victory can have a happy result. The lesson is that, after a war, with hard work and a lot of luck the factors that might lead to another war can be substantially reduced. This is a critical distinction.

Our own Civil War was another such anomaly. Long and dear friendships existed across warring lines; officers on both sides knew and actually liked each other even as they tried to kill each other. At Appomattox Ulysses S. Grant ordered his troops not to celebrate the surrender of Robert E. Lee so as not to hurt the Confederates’ feelings. The rebel leaders were not punished for treason but were released on parole. (The only exceptions I’m aware of were the executions of the Lincoln assassination conspirators and the commanding officer of Andersonville Prison.) Compared to the aftermath of any other civil war on this planet, this behavior was downright peculiar. Even so, even though we haven’t had another civil war, there was another kind of violence — the defeated white southerners took their rage out on African Americans, beginning a reign of racial terrorism that has still not completely dissipated.

The truth that countless generations of fools can’t get into their heads is that military victory doesn’t create peace. Sometimes what victors choose to do with the victory can help establish peace, but that’s rare.

Carroll concludes,

The Bush administration embraced the cult of war when it did not have to. Bush re-legitimized that cult, and sponsored it anew. In this, he was supported by the American people, its press and its political establishment. In the beginning, the nation itself re affirmed war as the way to justice-and-peace. We did this. The first fallacy lived. By now, even Washington’s one self-proclaimed “victory” has led to further defeat. The “good” war in Afghanistan put in place structures of oppression that promised an inevitable resumption of savagery, which has begun. …

… Because of the destructiveness of modern weapons, there will be no distant future unless humans, having seen through the congenital illusion of justice-and-peace through violence, come to the rejection of war. That must begin now. Democrats, take heed: Bush must not be allowed to further the chaos. Having led the world into this moral wilderness, America has a grave responsibility to lead the way out. We have to cease killing other people’s children, which is the way to stop them from killing ours. Stop the war by stopping.