Political Hay

Selfish Old Party

Michael Gerson misses the point of small-government conservatism.

By 12.20.06

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Michael Gerson's compassionate conservatism apparently doesn't extend to his small-government political allies. In a sharply worded Newsweek column, the former Bush speechwriter and future Washington Post scribe denounced "antigovernment conservatives" as indifferent to America's social ills and antithetical to the right's best political traditions.

The message of this Christmas card to the Republican base was that two factions are competing for control of the party's agenda -- "the Republican Party of movement conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the think-tank world" versus the pragmatists who are from the government and here to help. The erstwhile White House wordsmith doesn't leave any doubt as to which side he's on, unless he intends his Russell Kirk quote about the "ideology of universal selfishness" as a compliment.

There are several ways to approach Gerson's piece. You could wade into the wonkish details and try to rebut him point by point. After all, even excluding homeland-security expenses, non-defense discretionary spending has increased 7 percent annually under President Bush compared to 4.2 percent under Bill Clinton -- it's stealing a base just to cite the increase in Clinton's final year. And did we really raise federal education spending by record amounts and enact a prescription-drug benefit for seniors regardless of ability to pay for national security reasons?

In a similar vein, you could defend Ronald Reagan from the assertion that he was no better on fiscal policy than the current president. It's true that both liberals and conservatives exaggerate the Gipper's government-cutting. But the record shows that under Reagan, real non-defense discretionary spending actually decreased 1.4 percent per annum.

Yet it might be most illuminating to look at Gerson from the perspective of how far conservatives have strayed from their first principles since being tempted with political power. "Why," he asked, "don't anti-government conservatives mention spending increases on defense and homeland security when they make their critique?" So we no longer even take for granted that national defense is a more legitimate and pressing function of government than foreign-aid boondoggles?

And apparently we have lost sight of the conservative, as opposed to purely libertarian, reasons for limiting government. It is exactly because the welfare state cannot replicate the benefits of organic institutions like families, neighborhoods, and congregations; it can only make it easier for atomized individuals to live without these vital institutions. Welfarism tends to crowd out civil society just as surely as public spending crowds out private investment.

"What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare....What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country?" These questions ignore the role post-Great Society government played in making violence so common and families so rare, fracturing our communities and country. LBJ's War on Poverty didn't fail simply because Republicans generals weren't in charge.

It is precisely this kind of union between conservative moralism and liberal notions about government's potential that makes modern anti-statists want to forget about fusionism and become liberaltarians. For many Republicans, the recent federal spending frenzy didn't reflect a departure from principle -- these are their principles. They see being concerned about the size of government as pointlessly fixating on procedure.

Consider the incident that Gerson describes as his "low point" with the GOP -- the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when "the response of many Republicans was to use the disaster as an excuse for cutting government spending." To recap: while Brownie was off doing a heck of a job, a group of congressional Republicans sought to offset the relief expenditures with budget cuts elsewhere. A few of them even wanted new programs requested by the Bush administration to be candidates for the chopping block.

The fact that a (mostly unsuccessful) attempt to ensure that the Katrina relief price tag wasn't passed on to future generations, during an event that did much to demonstrate the federal government's limited problem-solving abilities, is so scandalous says much about what's wrong with the "big government Republicanism" Gerson defends.

Interestingly, his fretting about "an idealism that strangles mercy" comes at the same time as the release of a fascinating book by Arthur C. Brooks entitled Who Really Cares? Among Brooks's findings: those who most strongly oppose government redistributive schemes give more than 10 times as much to charity than boosters of the welfare state. This wouldn't surprise traditional conservatives who believe that redistribution weakens community ties as charity ends with writing a check to the IRS.

That's not to say that Bush-era big government conservatives don't mean well. Like the Great Society liberals before them, they surely do. It would be nice if they realized the same about their friends who prefer smaller government -- and if they were willing to judge policies by their results, not their intentions.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.