Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What ‘Small Government Conservatives’ Don’t Get

A lot has been made of Bill Kristol’s recent NY Times column in recent days, especially at the National Review’s Corner. Kristol argues, in a piece aptly titled “Small isn’t Beautiful”,
So talk of small government may be music to conservative ears, but it’s not to the public as a whole. This isn’t to say the public is fond of big-government liberalism. It’s just that what’s politically vulnerable about big-government liberalism is more the liberalism than the big government. (Besides, the public knows that government’s not going to shrink much no matter who’s in power.)
Ross Douthat agrees with portions of Kristol’s argument, but believes small government conservatives shouldn’t abandon their mission simply because it is not politically expedient. He writes:
Too often, when domestic-policy debates come up, conservatives are far too eager to change the subject: The public says education; the Right say "let's talk about capital-gains tax cuts." The public says health care; the Right says "let's talk about terrorism." The public says infrastructure; the Right says ... "let's refurbish military bases"?? Apparently so.

There are very, very good reasons to think that the United States has a serious problem with aging transportation infrastructure, which happens to be an area where government by necessity has a substantial role to play. It would behoove conservatives, then, to join the debate over how to modernize our infrastructure - as, to their credit, some are - rather than just ceding the field completely to Barack Obama
Matt Welch with Reason magazine has a less than enthusiastic review of Kristol’s piece. He says: “Big-Government Conservative, After Helping Big-Government Conservatism Fail, Advocates Big-Government Conservatism.” The conservatives at RedState have similar disdain for Kristol’s argument. They argue:
See, Bill Kristol thinks small government conservatives ride on the short bus on which so many readers of the New York Times ride. Small government conservatives actually recognize that government is going to grow. The question is: where should government grow? Kristol would have it grow in all areas with a bunch of technocrats managing the growth. Small government conservatives would have it grow in constitutional legitimate areas and would have it shrink in constitutionally illegitimate areas.”
I happen to agree with Kristol on this issue: I often hear from libertarians that the populace as a whole wants a small government, something I have never seen to be the case (at least not in a prolonged consistent manner). Populists and small government conservatives make easy pickings of the pork and waste that goes on in Washington, and any sane citizen in this country is likely to be equally appalled by such things. This however doesn’t stop citizens from supporting projects that bring money and jobs to their communities, and end up keeping politicians in office if they deliver on their campaign promises to improve the lives of their constituents. What politician running for office says he will not fight for the projects that will bring income and employment to the people he represents? And what individual would support such a candidate? American’s may say they hate “big government,” but if there is money to be made from it, they surely want a piece of it.

Even if American’s believe the government provides too much in the way of welfare and government subsidies, an increasingly large number of American’s take government assistance in one form of another.

More importantly, if conservatives want to catapult themselves back into positions of power, they are going to need more than slogans in opposition to Obama’s recommended public works program. There are substantial and persuasive arguments made in recent years, that Roosevelt’s New Deal programs actually hurt the economy more than they helped it during the depression, and that it was only the Second World War that brought America out of its slump. This thesis may be correct; I don’t have the economic know how to argue for or against it.

What I can say however is that a majority of the citizenry believed Roosevelt was helping them during those dire years. A majority believed he was on their side, and that he was doing all he could to make their lives better. That perception matters, both in politics and in our assessment of history. When George Bush stood at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks, and said we would do all in our power to bring the people responsible for the tragedy to justice, it struck a chord with many Americans. It took years of incompetence to squander that goodwill (with an equal share of hyper partisanship from the opposition), but it was real and it was genuine.

But it surely didn’t have to do with facts and figures, and that’s something small government conservatives should consider in the coming years as the opponents to Obama’s big government mission.


dandy has a posse said...

Your main argument, that politicians need to do what makes people feel good at all times, seems to contradict your support for the Iraq War. Assuming the population’s perception of an event reigns supreme, doesn’t it then make the liberation a failure on that front?

E.D. Kain said...

I think the GOP has no choice but to move into a more "big government" mode. I would argue government can still be limited even as it gets (naturally) bigger over the years.

I like Douthat's "Party of Sams Club" ideas a lot, actually.

Small government is fine in theory, and where it works it should be applied--but in practice it is much more difficult.

Steve Nizer said...

America also enjoys a social safety net that most people support. When Nixon took office in 1969, it was assumed that he would try and wreck the Great Society. In reality, he created OSHA and the EPA. Republicans should focus on national defense, the only issue where they still have any credibility.

Roland Dodds said...

E.D. and Steve: I think we are all on the same page with this issue to one degree or another, at least in so far as we understand that parts of our welfare state remain popular (or acceptable in the eyes of many Americans). That’s not to say that all of these programs are good, and that small government types don’t have strong arguments against them, but recognizing that the populace doesn’t want them to end is the first step in building a realistic political program.

There is always a place for idealists and theorists, and perhaps small government thinkers could tip the public’s opinion towards there own, but until then, the Republican Party needs to play in the real world and deal with the situation in front of us.

When people lose their livelihoods, they will ask their representatives “what are you going to do to help me?” If their reps say “it’s not my job to protect your job or occupation, that’s an economic issue we would be best not to tamper with,” I bet they will be thrown out of office. He may be correct to say that, but that ideal will bread distrust and resentment in our political system.

I don’t find it surprising that many of the voices opposed to the auto bailout in congress, are politicians that don’t work in a district being directly affected by the closing of those manufacturing plants. You better believe Michigan’s representatives are going to come out swinging on behalf on their constituents.

Dandy: I am not saying “popular is right.” I would argue that the Iraq liberation was the right thing to do even if 99% of the population disagreed (which they don’t, at least according to recent polls). What I am saying is that if 99% of Americans were opposed to the operation, it would be an un-winnable situation, and politicians would be forced to do what their constituent’s demanded of them.

Looking at the big picture, it does bode poorly for interventionism in the coming years. One of the lies the Left has repeated over and over is that only a few crazy neocons supported or support the liberation of Iraq. It was supported by many in the American populace when it began, and while it is surely not popular with a majority of the country, it was never as unpopular as the far left partisans made it out to be. However, it has made many Americans rethink how and when we use our power, and so I envision less support for future interventions.