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]