Complex Untruth

The popular appeal of "just enough government"


In his June 1998 Atlantic cover story, "The Southern Captivity of the GOP," Christopher Caldwell artfully interpreted voters' responses to the 102nd Congress' tepid attempts to roll back some government programs and slow the growth of spending on others. Such small efforts, observed Caldwell, "mobilized much of the American public on behalf of a cause it didn't know it espoused: keeping government roughly the same size."

Over the years, what might be called the "just enough government" theme has had its share of champions, often from the conservative end of the political spectrum. Jack Kemp, for instance, once warned against "root canal economics," and George Will waged a war against "taxophobia." But the idea is usually received very badly. Hard-core right-wingers call it selling out and leftists denounce it as cowardly or reactionary. American politics has never developed a strong strain of Toryism: You either favor more government or less.

Someone ought to tell that to Robert J. Samuelson, the Washington Post and Newsweek columnist and author, most recently, of Untruth: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong (Random House). In the introduction to this collection of essays, Samuelson simultaneously embraces "Big Government" as good for the nation and cautions that its expansion "poses many practical problems and invites abuse." Based in Washington, D.C., Samuelson's posture puts him at loggerheads with the capital city's two cultures—yet perhaps in closer agreement with the thinking of the American public than any other living public intellectual.

The close link owes, in part, to his identification with the preferences of the vulgar masses. He unapologetically praises McDonald's and vacations at Walt Disney World. He even begins one essay by giving out way too much personal information: "Johnny wears disposable diapers and that's not an environmental disaster." In keeping with his appraisal of the "steadfast and often silly American character," Samuelson is "stubborn and rigid" when it comes to his own tastes—he still uses a manual typewriter to produce his columns.

Like most of his fellow citizens, Samuelson espouses "what are sometimes derided as 'traditional family values'" and a vision of government that is more restrained and less grab-fisted than the Democratic Party would like. In a recent column for the Post, he argued that what critics of the Bush tax reduction "really resent is that they'd like to spend the money that [the president has] devoted to tax cuts." At the same time, he wants environmental regulations and finds himself attitudinally disinclined to support the GOP's social legislation because "their moralism—on abortion, school prayer and family affairs—says: Let us impose our values on you."

The resolution of these conflicting impulses is one of Samuelson's rare big ideas: Gridlock is good. Divided government, rather than leading to distrust and apathy, can avoid the excesses of an ideological monolith running the national government. Tax rates creep down; spending increases slightly; environmental regulations continue but are not allowed to fasten themselves to the choke points of the economy; welfare is reformed but not eliminated; moral reforms are encouraged but not imposed; and, quite possibly, we all get rich.

After analyzing the effects of gridlock on economic growth in the 1990s, economist Kevin Hassett nominated James Carville as the man of the decade for "inject[ing] into Washington politics a partisan ferocity and enmity" unrivaled by anything the city had ever seen. To explain why no new regulatory bodies sprung up to slow down the explosion of the technology sector, Hassett speculated that a self-restrained government would be nice but the "more practical way to accomplish the same thing…is to elect a national government that simply jams up and shuts down."

Samuelson's reaction to the atmosphere that culminated in the impeachment of President Clinton is instructive both because it hews closely to the instincts of the public and because it exposes the limits of the preference—it doesn't quite merit the epithet "philosophy"—for "just enough government." He laments Washington's "hateful political climate" and deplores the impeachment of the president as the end result of an "attack culture" and a "defective law." "Congress ought to rescue the Supreme Court from its confusion by legislating limits" on sexual harassment laws. But, he shrugs, good luck getting that to happen.

The few elite advocates of just enough government, and the mass of non-ideologues that they speak for, are effective and reliable when it comes to defeating obvious expansions of government power, whether the issue is unworkable ergonomic regulations or repressive campaign finance reform. But attempts to recover some of the ground already lost by repealing past dumb laws or programs, as the Republican Congress disastrously attempted to do in 1995, find them digging into the present position rather than advancing.

This halt, as Samuelson acknowledges, is not about a love of government so much as it is about self-interest and the status quo. The current social bargain may not be the best deal possible, but it's not intolerable either. And until that changes, the just enough government ethos is likely to remain widespread and popular, if rarely articulated as such.