01 May 2006

The End of Small-Government Conservatism

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David Frum wonders in this month’s Cato Unbound lead essay, Republicans and the Flight of Opportunity, whether the collapse of the Gingrich Revolution of the 1990s and the emergence of George W. Bush has resulted in the squandering of “The fairest chance to achieve the limited-government agenda.”

Frum observes:

The state is growing again—and it is preprogrammed to carry on growing. Health spending will rise, pension spending will rise, and taxes will rise.

Now I still continue to hope that the Republican party will lean against these trends. But there’s a big difference between being the party of less government and a party of small government. It’s one thing to try to slow down opponents as they try to enact their vision of society into law. It’s a very different thing to have a vision of one’s own.

And the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.

He notes three reasons:

First, while small-government conservatism remains an important faction within the Republican party, it is only a faction. When Republicans held the minority in Congress, the small-government faction could act as an important blocking group against big-government over-reaching—as happened for example with Hillarycare in 1994 or the Carter energy plan in 1978. But when the Republicans won their majority and the small-government faction tried to enact an affirmative agenda, suddenly we discovered that we were not strong enough to enact a program by ourselves — and had instead rendered ourselves vulnerable to blocking action by others…

..Second, I think it’s been fairly established now that the Republican party responds far more attentively to the practical needs of business constituencies than to the abstract principles of free-marketeers. Tom Delay’s “K Street Project” attempted to harness the might of the business lobbying community to Republican goals. It ended instead by subordinating the Republican party to the wishes of the business lobbying community…

..Third, for the GOP to reinvent itself as a limited-government would require it to repudiate much or maybe close to all of the domestic agenda of the Bush administration.

His ultimate conclusions are gloomy.

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Nathan Hitchen

I think the problem is that small-government conservatives haven’t found a way to cobble together an effective coalition of vested interest groups that benefit when government “gets smaller.” Politics is not enacted through appeals to ideas; the ideological “air war” of abstract arguments about the limits to government, etc., is only that–an air war. The ground war, where ideas become enacted into reality via programs, and where we see actual structural change, is enacted through the action of organized interest groups. Right now, all interest groups are calculated to benefit when government grows (they want subsidies, etc.). The trick to effect real, lasting, institutional change towards limited government is two fold: 1) Through the judiciary; 2) Creating the condition wherein a class of people will be invested in government’s decrease. Judges must be appointed who will (as mirror images of New Deal era judges) STRIKE DOWN unconstitutional expanses in govervnment activity–judges like Janice Rogers Brown; that is how the Progressives ultimately triumphed after their electoral/political failures. Justices like Brandeis and O. W. Holmes changed jurisprudence so as to remove the judiciary as an institution committed to limited government via the Constitution. Secondly, I believe programs like the HSAs and Social Security privatization schemes can structure a class of people who can be invested in, established to, and institutionally interested in lower taxes, and thus less expansive government activity.



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