Rumors of Our Demise

That Republicans are no longer the party of small government has long been obvious to just about everyone—bar, perhaps, Lewis Lapham, who invariably uses the monthly interruption of his septuagenarian slumbers to harumph out a 1994-vintage column about the merciless reign of the firebreathing laissez-faire ideologues. It's almost two years since David Brooks articulated the growing consensus on that point in a New York Times Magazine cover story proclaiming "The Era of Small Government is Over." But there's been a flurry of pieces on the topic in the last few weeks, the most extreme of which has the New America Foundation's Michael Lind gleefuly proclaiming in the Financial Times an "epochal event in world politics":

It is the utter and final defeat of the movement that has shaped the politics of the US and other western democracies for several decades: the libertarian counter-revolution.

Like the famous estimate that there was a global market for (at most) seven computers, or the suggestion at the end of the 19th century that the patent office could be closed (as everything of any interest had already been invented), this is the sort of prediction that invariably proves embarassing to the prognosticator sooner or later. A substantially similar piece, after all, could probably have been written at any number of times in the decades before Reagan, when the bien pensant consensus seemed to be that the West would smoothly but inexorably coast into social democracy. It's tempting to say, as some of our eulogists suggest, that the emergence of a small government movement was just a bump in the road, a Cold War artifact, but I'm doubtful: The alliance between people or groups whose fundamental instinct is libertarian and people or groups whose fundamental instinct is conservative may well have been an anti-Marxist marriage of convenience. But it is not, I hope, too sanguine to the think that the prospects of political libertarianism needn't stand or fall with that specific basis for that particular coalition.

As Steve Clemons notes, Bush is sufficiently aberrant along various dimensions that it's not clear how quick we should be to draw broad inferences about the general trajectory of American politics from this administration. More generally, though, I think there's a perennial temptation for pundits to confidently extrapolate straight-line continuations of recent trends: More of this, only more so, forever. In fairness, with 800 words, your predictive options are usually limited to that or the slightly more Hegelian "backlash" alternative: The exact opposite of this, very soon.

Ezra Klein's entry in the genre (which takes a May Cato Unbound forum on the GOP and limited government as its starting point) manages to steer wisely clear of Lind's world-historical pronouncements, but also seems to read a bit too much into recent public opinion polls (if, after all, the point is that they've shifted toward "big government conservatism" in recent years, it's not obvious that they couldn't shift back just as quickly) and to identify the upshot of federal politicking with a hypostatized General Will. At best, these reveal, on the one hand, a snapshot of how most people right now are responding to a specific form of political rhetoric under specific conditions, and on the other, the contingent relative power of contingent political coalitions given their present perception of their interests. None of these is inscribed in stone: Recall the (all too brief) progressive flirtation with federalism in the wake of Bush's reelection.

The premise behind big government conservatism is that if Republicans adopt all the same policies as Democrats, they'll get twice as many votes—which doesn't seem particularly sustainable. What we've learned in recent years, I think pretty clearly, is that "starving the beast" doesn't work. If you reduce the perceived cost of government through tax cuts, without corresponding structural cuts in spending, you guarantee government growth—which is why Bush has presided over the largest hike in domestic discretionary spending since LBJ.

But you can't, in fact, do that forever. At some point, people will need to decide to what extent they're actually willing to pay for their goodies. Ditto Social Security: The failure of the Republican gambit to reform the program doesn't make its long-term financing problem vanish. Globalization doesn't make as many headlines these days, but it's still happening, and the pressures it exerts are still essentially the same. Reforms like vouchers don't need to be hugely popular at the national level: They can take root by being tried, and creating a constituency for their perpetuation, one municipality at a time.

None of which is to say that small-government conservatives and classical liberals ought to be optimistic, exactly, especially in the short term. But Gallup polls and horse race politics are a poor indicator of the longer term viability of a broad political philosophy. [Cross-posted @ NftL]

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  • ||

    I have a very interesting question for the 2008 prez race.

    Will the Republicans give up two of their core values to support Rudy?

    The two values I speak of?

    Gun rights
    anti-abortion

  • ||

    "Will the Republicans give up two of their core values to support Rudy?"

    I thought Rudy has been "born again" on the abortion issue in the last year.

  • ||

    More generally, though, I think there's a perennial temptation for pundits to confidently extrapolate straight-line continuations of recent trends: More of this, only more so, forever.

    Very good point, Julian, and not just pundits, and not just now. Historians have a similar tendency towards the past.

  • ||

    SR, if that's true, I missed it. He can claim whatever but his record is clear.

    Let's say your right on the the abortion issue. Are the Republicans ready to abandon their pro gun stance to elect Rudy?

    Many have no idea he's anti-gun. I was talking to a right-wing, Fox News loving friend of mine who lives in Virgina. I posed the question to him. He replied that Rudy was tough and assumed he was pro-gun because of that toughness. I had to remind him how many times Rudy tried suing his state for illegal guns coming to NYC. The phone was silent for a minute and my friend replied "I guess I need to rethink this".

    Plus, Rudy is a adulterer.

    That would make a 08 race between Rudy and Hillary, the adulterer vs the adulteree.

  • ||

    Many have no idea he's anti-gun. I was talking to a right-wing, Fox News loving friend of mine who lives in Virgina. I posed the question to him. He replied that Rudy was tough and assumed he was pro-gun because of that toughness. I had to remind him how many times Rudy tried suing his state for illegal guns coming to NYC. The phone was silent for a minute and my friend replied "I guess I need to rethink this".

    Ah, but there are two possibilities:

    1) Rudy has another conversion about gun control in order to secure the pro-gun vote.

    2) Rudy runs as an "anti-gun" Republican while the RNC does it's damnedest to convince the NRA that it's all just a ploy to soften the GOP's image and regain the trust of the center and they reign him in once he wins the White House.

    Either way, someone is going to have to play the whore (and not in the sexy way), something politicians are more than willing to do.

  • ||

    Doesn't Giuliani being a Northerner--and an Eastern one at that!--make him pretty much unelectable? I mean, the guy has none of that jus'-folks charm that the electorate demands in a President these days.

  • ||

    he also looks butt ugly in a dress.

  • ||

    "he also looks butt ugly in a dress."

    So does Guiliani.

  • ||

    "SR, if that's true, I missed it."

    Sorry, I was wrong. I double-checked and it's McCain who suddenly discovered abortion is immoral. Giuliani is sucking up the social conservatives on "protecting the children" from media violence and pornography, but apparently he's holding firm on the abortion issue.

  • ||

    One of my disappoinments with Republicans and spending is that they rarely seem to propose clever cuts in spending that Democrats and others would have a hard time arguing against. Examples:

    1) A cap on farm subsidies. No person or corporation can get more than $X million per year.

    2) Means-testing Social Security at a very high income level. If your income is over, say, $200K/year, no checks for you, gramps.

    3) A spending increase pause. If you look at a chart of total federal revenue and total federal spending, the deficit would be eliminated if spending were simply held at a fixed amount for a few years (less than 5, the last time I checked), because the revenue would catch up. I realize this might be difficult to do politically, but why not stop spending increases for just a year, to eliminate a quarter of the deficit?

  • ||

    Smaller government? Needs lots of definition.

    If we deleted the EPA, DOT, DOE, DOC and increased Homeland Secutity by half the amount of losses, that would be smaller government.

    Where do minds go when they envision a smaller government?

    Smaller is good but the mix is equally important.

    Rudy Giuliani was a fad during a brief tragic moment.

  • ||

    Problem is, rarely have politicians gotten elected by promising NOT to do something. Once the statist mindset takes hold, it probably takes some kind of catastrophe or revolution to get rid of it.

  • ||

    or the suggestion at the end of the 19th century that the patent office could be closed (as everything of any interest had already been invented)

    urban legend. the oft-quoted speech was (as any libertarian should be able to guess) actually a plea by the head of the patent office for a bigger staff and budget.

  • ||

    As a card-holding GOPer who is at his core a libertarian, I have to agree with Julian. There's no real death in the movement among my friends so much as a deep "stumping". Part of this gave is realpolitik: GOP libertarians often equate not voting for the GOP to be the same as voting for the DNC, which they detest even more than the current list of big government elephants. It's going to take a some major losses for the GOP to swing the ship around. Julian's right. "I'm not dead yet! I feel happy!"

  • ||

    Is it possible that we've finally gotten to the point where most people figure we can afford a big fancy government?

    Is it possible that they are right?

    Is it possible to have a high-service government that rescues people from their own mistakes, without having an onerous bureaucracy?

  • ||

    Is it possible to have a high-service government that rescues people from their own mistakes, without having an onerous bureaucracy?

    Problem is, the end result is usually many more such "mistakes," due to the absence of consequences.

    A lot of people think we can have a big fancy government because (a) the bill never seems to come due, and (b) they never equate restrictions on their own liberty with their desire to regulate the conduct of others. The first will end once the Chinese are unable or unwilling to continue buying our govt. bonds en masse, and the second won't end until we suffer a catastrophe/revolution.

  • ||

    Is it possible to have a high-service government that rescues people from their own mistakes, without having an onerous bureaucracy?

    no

  • Gene Berkman||

    Given the record since Richard Nixon took office as President, referring to Republicans as the party of small government is more nostalgia than reality. GOP rhetoric about limited government is like the light of a star that reaches us years after the star has stopped shining.

    In recent years, the Republican focus has always been on expanding government power - social conservatives want to ban abortion, censor TV and the internet, and expand the Border Patrol. War is a government program too, and so is the War on Drugs.

    Sure, the Democrats are for big government too, and the Libertarian Party has not yet made an impact. But supporting the Republicans as a strategy for cutting government power has reached a dead end.

  • ||

    Reagan scoffed. "John tells us that first we've got to reduce spending before we can reduce taxes. . . Well, if you've got a kid that's extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker."

    While I am not passionate or certain about "starve the beast" I do think its death is greatly exaggerated, and its futility unproven. Because missing from the above Reaganite sensible analogy is the phrase "AND take away his credit cards."

  • Abercrombie and Fitch||

    Good!

  • ||

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