In his latest book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, David Frum relates a story from the 1950s about an ex-Communist who got into an argument with a young man newly infatuated with Marxism. The older man retorted: "Your answers are so old that I've forgotten the questions."
In many ways we conservatives are like the young Marxist. Often we are more familiar with the proper answer than with the questions they address. For example, we consider "limited government" to be one of the first principles of political conservatism. But what does the phrase really mean?
Too often we make the error of using the phrases "small government" and "limited government" as if they were interchangeable. But the modifiers "small" and "limited" are not synonymous for, when applied to governments, one refers to size and the other to function. A governmental body could be large in size and still be limited in function just as it could be unrestricted in function and small in size.
Of course, size does matter. The larger the government the more resources it will command and the more likely it will usurp its proper roles. But framing the debate in terms of big/small implies not only that there is an ideal size for government (which we conservatives might agree on) but also that we know what that size should be (something most of us have no clue about).
However, the biggest problem with this approach is that it leaves the question open to debate. Some Americans – even some conservatives – have no qualms about government being "big." So before we can even convince them to accept our solution we have to convince them there's a problem.
Instead of talking about size, perhaps we should be framing the debate in terms of complexity. After all, the problem is not just that government is too big, but that it's too complicated. No one -- not even the people in power -- really understand how the system works or what is going on. This allows us to present a common-sense standard for when the government has become too complex: When the average citizen can't understand what is going on, government has become too complicated.
Governmental complexity makes people feel dumb, and American's don't like to be made to feel dumb (that is one of the underlying causes of the populist-elitist divide). They rightly believe that if they can navigate Windows Vista or follow the story line of LOST they should be able to understand what is going on in their nation's Capitol.
But they don't. And even those who live in the fever swamps of DC politics don't really understand it either. How many of us truly understand what is going on with the stimulus? We may know that the tab is nearly a trillion dollar but how many of us (without resorting to Google) can even say how many zeros are in a trillion?
"You're not dumb, government is too complex," is a winning sentiment. Indeed, this simple framing device is one of the reasons that the flat-tax and FairTax movements (whatever their merits as policy proposals) were able to gain such traction with heartland conservatives. The tax code is harder to understand than quantum physics. Even the liberal elites who built it don’t understand it, a fact that can be effectively exploited. But while most DC-based pundits were using Obama's tax-scofflaws to mock the administration as hypocrites, the FairTax's Ken Hoagland was effectively arguing that the problem is not just the people but the monster they created:
But when the chairman of the congressional committee that writes federal tax laws, the man responsible for running the IRS as the secretary of the Treasury and the nominee to head the agency responsible for Social Security and Medicare say they failed to pay owed taxes because they misunderstood our tax laws, where does that leave the rest of us?
This is a message – and a model for debate – that resonates with Americans. And it fits the conservative goal of limiting government (it's difficult for bureaucracy to be both average-voter simple and liberty-infringing powerful). Rather than Quixotically attempting to convince our fellow citizens that government is too big we should simply point out that it is too complex. The goal of conservatism should be to restore a modified Lincolnian standard: a government of the people, for the people, and understandable by the people.
(By the way, thanks to editor extraordinaire for inviting me to blog on AmSpec. It's a true honor. And I promise in future posts not to be so long-winded.)