The Era of Limited Government is Over
William Voegeli notes that, despite railing against big government for more than a quarter century, conservatives have done nothing to stop it. Some excerpts from an unusually long WSJ op-ed:
A quarter century ago president Ronald Reagan declared in his first inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. . . . It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people.” In 1981, the year of that speech, the federal government spent $678 billion; in 2006, it spent $2,655 billion. Adjust that 292% increase for inflation, and the federal government is still spending 84% more than it did when Reagan became president–in a country whose population has grown by only 30%.
To put the point another way, if per capita spending after 1980 had grown at the rate of inflation, federal outlays would have been $1,883 billion in 2006 instead of $2,655 billion. The 41% increase from 1981 to 2006 is considerably lower than the 94% increase in real per capita spending in the previous 25 years, from 1956 to 1981. In the past two decades, the federal establishment grew steadily, rather than dramatically. Nonetheless, Reagan’s pledge to curb the government’s size and influence has hardly been fulfilled. Inflation-adjusted federal spending increased in every year but two over the past 26 years.
The numbers confirm what every despondent conservative already knows. Since Reagan’s stunning victory in 1980, conservative journals have annihilated forests to print articles about excessive government spending. Conservative think tanks have produced sweeping plans for reducing the welfare state. Republicans occupied the White House for 18 of the 26 years after 1980, and held a Senate majority for 16 1/2 years and a House majority for 12 years. Yet the result is a federal establishment bigger and more influential today than in 1980.
And it’s not military spending, the War on Terror, or any such conservative-approved rationale that is to blame here; the rise has come almost entirely in entitlements and other social welfare programs. The problem, as Voegeli explains at length, is that Republicans haven’t been willing to expend the political capital to fight against these programs and thus wind up, at most, arguing about the size of the increase. Indeed, most conservatives have accepted as a matter of fact the existence of a welfare state and are now just haggling over price.
His solution, frankly, isn’t much of one:
It makes sense for conservatives to attack liberalism where it is weakest, rather than where it is strongest. Liberals sell the welfare state one brick at a time, deflecting inquiries about the size and cost of the palace they’re building. Citizens are encouraged to regard the government as a rich uncle, who needs constant hectoring to become ever more generous. Conservatives need to make the macro-question the central one, and to insist that limited government is inseparable from self-government. To govern is to choose. To deliberate about the legitimate and desirable extent of the welfare state presupposes that we the people should choose the size and nature of government programs, rather than have them be chosen for us by entitlements misconstrued as inviolable rights.
No political strategy can guarantee success. Under no foreseeable set of circumstances will liberals fear giving voters their spiel: We want the government to give things to you and do things for you. Conservatives can only reply that single-entry bookkeeping doesn’t work; every benefit the government confers will correspond to a burden it has to impose. A government that respects citizens as adults will level with them about the benefits and the costs. A conservatism that labors to reverse liberalism’s displacement of Americans’ rights as citizens with their “rights” as welfare recipients may not achieve victory, but it will at least deserve it.
He’s right, I think, on how to conduct the debate. Ultimately, though, it’s a losing position. He quotes Robert Samuelson’s recent line, “Most Americans . . . think that they automatically deserve whatever they’ve been promised simply because the promises were made.” Green eyeshade arguments aren’t going to be very effective in combating that sense of entitlement.
Aside from frustration over the bipartisan foreign policy consensus of constant military engagement around the world, the yearning for small government conservatism is perhaps the biggest issue driving the zeal for Ron Paul. There has been precious little evidence in the last quarter century or so, though, that a passion for self-sufficiency exists in anything close to a majority.