Political Hay

Big Government Can’t Conserve

Big government conservatism has been tried, and it continues to fail -- big time.

By 4.20.05

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Conservative efforts to restore spending restraint to its rightful place on the Republican agenda are off to an inauspicious start. Just last week, Bush administration proposals to trim expenditures on agricultural subsidies and Medicaid were stymied in large part by GOP congressional resistance.

Even many conservative Republicans have made their peace with bloated federal budgets. There are a number of reasons for this -- GOP domination of Washington, the political futility of cutting popular programs, decreased conservative skepticism of state power following 9/11 -- but perhaps the simplest explanation is that conservatives are more likely than before to believe that their policy objectives can be accomplished through big government.

This tendency is not limited to religious conservatives, whatever their disagreements with others on the right about government's ability to suppress vice and inculcate virtue. Social issues do motivate some people to vote Republican despite their misgivings about free-market economics; there is no inherent contradiction between being pro-life and pro-farm subsidies. But there isn't much evidence that values voters are more in favor of big government than the general public. Among GOP officeholders, there is a high correlation between fiscal and social conservatism, while liberal Republicans like Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe buck their party on taxes and spending as well as abortion.

Indeed, the greatest expansions of the federal government under President Bush have not occurred at the behest of the religious right. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms were largely opposed by social conservatives. The Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind were attempts to co-opt Democratic issues.

These last two initiatives also serve as examples of what Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes described as the "essence of Mr. Bush's big government conservatism... To gain free-market reforms and expand individual choice, he's willing to broaden programs and increase spending."

Hacking away at popular federal programs, Barnes might argue, has always been a political loser. Better to try to reform these programs by offering more market-based incentives and personal choice, in order to make them more effective and perhaps shrink them through decreased dependence over time. Big government conservatism, by this reasoning, might be seen as a transitional phase between the welfare state and an ownership society.

Unfortunately, this cleverness has tended to yield more big government than conservatism. No Child Left Behind increased federal education spending and imposed testing mandates on the states, but did little to promote school choice. The prescription drug benefit may cost $1.2 trillion in ten years, but offered few incentives for seniors to abandon traditional Medicare for private insurance.

Surely, some of these shortcomings are the result of legislative compromise and the president's refusal to veto bills no matter how far they've strayed from the original White House proposals. But the main problem is a byproduct of the contradictions inherent in conservative welfarism: you can't simultaneously have redistributive programs generous enough to leave no potential beneficiary behind yet chock full of incentives that effectively encourage self-reliance. One or the other has to give.

Nor is this dilemma new to conservatives eager to avoid unpopular budget cuts. Many of the old "empowerment" programs aimed at offering incentives to move from welfare to work, in the 1980s and '90s chiefly identified with Jack Kemp, were hampered by the need to include so many government benefits and guarantees that the measures could not truly be described as free-market.

It is therefore a mistake to attribute the right's current problems to traditionalists turning against their libertarian former fusionist allies (I've tried to make the case that libertarians and social conservatives are both neglected GOP constituencies). The inclination to use big government means to achieve conservative ends is more pervasive. Economic conservatives hope to sugarcoat free-market reforms previously associated with benefit cuts by coupling them with increased spending. Moral conservatives hope to shift the federal government from undermining their values to protecting and even promoting them.

The bad news for small government conservatives is that there is ample precedent for a big government right, in the form of Bismarckian welfarism and state-enforced moralism, prevailing in the electoral arena. But the good news is that opportunity remains on the merits, as big government policies cannot achieve what most conservatives of all stripes desire.

Continued government growth will undermine fiscal conservatives' ability to keep tax rates low and reform programs along free-market lines. Social conservatives will be thwarted as popular middle-class entitlements prove as corrosive of the family as welfare for the poor and federal largesse crowds out the traditional institutions they seek to preserve as much as it crowds out private investment.

Even so, it won't be easy to counter big government conservatism. But it is essential to the realization of conservatives' most desired domestic policy goals.

W. James Antle III is assistant editor of the American Conservative.

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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.