Leviathan on the Right (How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution)



Consider the following policy proposals that have been floating around Washington in the months leading up to the 2006 election: (a) creating a new cabinet-level federal Department of Families; (b) giving every child $2,000 at birth; (c) having the federal government fund 70,000 new math and science teachers; and (d) requiring every American to purchase health insurance. One might expect that those proposals were made by liberal Democrats, perhaps Ted Kennedy or Hillary Clinton preparing for their Senate majority. In fact, every one of them was made by conservative Republicans.

Or consider President George W. Bush. Bush was the first Republican since Eisenhower to run for president without calling for cutting or abolishing a single government program. Since his election, Bush has presided over the largest expansion of government spending since Lyndon Johnson initiated the Great Society. Domestic spending has increased by 27 percent during his presidency. More people now work for the federal government than at any time since the Cold War. Not a single federal program has been eliminated.

The expansion of the federal government under the Bush presidency goes far beyond mere dollars, however. For example, this president has

• Enacted the largest new entitlement program since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit that could add as much as $11.2 trillion to the program's unfunded liabilities

• Dramatically increased federal control over local schools while increasing federal education spending by nearly 61 percent

• Signed a campaign finance bill that greatly restricts freedom of speech, despite saying he believed it was unconstitutional

• Authorized warrantless wiretapping and given vast new powers to law enforcement

• Federalized airport security and created a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security

• Added roughly 7,000 pages of new federal regulations, bringing the cost of federal regulations to the economy to more than $1.1 trillion

• Enacted a $1.5 billion program to promote marriage

• Proposed a $1.7 billion initiative to develop a hydrogen-powered car

• Abandoned traditional conservative support for free trade by imposing tariffs and other import restrictions on steel and lumber

• Expanded President Clinton's national service program

• Increased farm subsidies

• Launched an array of new regulations on corporate governance and accounting

• Generally done more to centralize government power in the executive branch than any administration since Richard Nixon

Individually, the merits of each of these items can be debated. Taken as a whole, they represent an undeniable shift toward big government. We have come a long way from Ronald Reagan's warning, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," to George W. Bush's saying, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move."

As longtime Washington reporter Janet Hook wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "No longer are Republicans arguing with Democrats about whether government should be big or small. Instead they are at odds over what kind of big government the U.S. should have." Fred Barnes, a Bush admirer, describes Bush's philosophy this way:

The president pays lip service to limiting the size and scope of government, but it is not a top Bush priority. In truth, his view of government is Hamiltonian: it is a valuable tool to achieve security, prosperity, and the common good. His strategy is to use government as a means to conservative ends.

The Bush administration has, deservedly, come in for much of the blame (or credit) for the growth of big-government conservatism. Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan administration economist, wrote a well-argued book claiming that Bush "betrayed" the conservative movement.

Despite the Bush administration's many flaws, however, placing all the blame for the growth in government with the president is unfair. On those occasions when the Republicans in Congress broke with the administration, they never did so to demand less spending or a smaller government. A Republican-controlled Congress, after all, appropriated $91 billion more for domestic programs than the president requested during his first term. Indeed, the Republican addiction to growing government began well before Bush was elected president. When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, the federal budget was $1.9 trillion. The Fiscal Year 2006 budget totaled just over $2.7 trillion. Figure 1.1 shows the growth in federal spending since 1994 [not shown in excerpt].

In 1994, the federal budget contained roughly 4,000 "earmarks" for specific projects in members' districts; the 2005 budget contained more than 14,000 such items. The massive $286 billion 2005 transportation bill alone contained 6,371.

The desire to expand government seems to have infected the Republican Party as a whole. The Manchester Union Leader describes an editorial board meeting with then Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie:

The result was a surprisingly frank admission that the Republican Party defines "fiscal responsibility" as increasing the federal budget at "a slower rate of growth" than the Democrats (his words). We asked him three times to explain why President Bush and the Republican Congress have increased discretionary non-defense spending at such an alarming rate, and why the party has embraced the expansion of the federal government's roles in education, agriculture and Great Society-era entitlement programs. "Those questions have been decided," he said. The public wants an expanded federal role in those areas, and the Republican Party at the highest levels has decided to give the public what it wants.

It is no wonder that on election night 2006 exit polls showed that voters viewed Republicans as the party of big government by an 11-point margin. More than 39 percent of voters now believe that Republicans, not Democrats, are the party of big government. Another 16 percent of voters believe that both Republicans and Democrats support big government. That's an astounding 55 percent of voters who believe that Republicans are a big-government party. Even 29 percent of Republicans said the Republicans are the "party of big government," while an additional 17 percent of Republicans said both parties fit that description.

Of course the Republican Party has always had its moderates or "wets." And many conservatives have honored their commitment to limited government more in rhetoric than in action. Unified government power, with the House, Senate, and presidency all controlled by the same party, nearly always yields more spending and bigger government than divided government. But this rejection of the traditional conservative small-government agenda represents something different. The recent drift by Republicans and other conservatives toward big government is not just a result of political pragmatism, addiction to pork-barrel politics, or the desire to curry favor with constituents who appear to demand government solutions to the problems that affect them. Rather it represents a slow but steady change in conservative philosophy, one that rejects a Reaganite skepticism about government in favor of a belief that big government may not be such a bad thing after all, if it can be harnessed to conservative ends.

The Essence of Big-Government Conservatism

To understand how conservatism has been turning away from its traditional belief in small government, one has to look no further than President George W. Bush. Indeed, as John DiIulio, the first director of President Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, has pointed out; from the very beginning of his run for the presidency, Bush made clear his differences with small-government conservatives.

His very first campaign speech, on July 22, 1999, articulated what he believed as a "compassionate conservative." Speaking before inner-city clergymen and women in Indianapolis, "economic growth," Bush preached, "is not the solution to every problem." He labeled as "destructive" the idea that government is bad and called explicitly for increasing government support for Medicaid and other federal programs. He also rebutted the notion that government needs only to step aside for families and communities to flourish. In particular he stressed that, when it comes to addressing poverty and urban blight, it "is not enough to call for volunteerism. Without more support—public and private—we are asking" local community-serving groups, both religious and secular, "to make bricks without straw."

This form of conservatism is fundamentally different from the one advocated by Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater. That conservatism sought "to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment," as Reagan said in his first inaugural address. Or as Barry Goldwater famously said in his 1960 classic,Conscience of a Conservative, "I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I intend to reduce its size."

Goldwater and Reagan-style conservatism is increasingly being supplanted by a new trend in conservative thought, which might loosely be termed big-government conservatism. This type of conservatism believes in a strong and activist government that intervenes in many areas of our lives, from dealing with issues such as poverty or health care to protecting the cultural institutions of our society. Increasingly it has come to resemble contemporary liberalism in its means, if not its ends.

Of course big-government conservatism is not a monolithic movement. Indeed, calling it a movement may overstate its unity and coherence. Outside of Fred Barnes, David Brooks, and a handful of others, few directly identify themselves with the term, preferring to call themselves "compassionate conservatives," "strong-government conservatives," "progressive conservatives," or some similar euphemism. Nor do big-government conservatives agree on every policy discussed in these pages. For example, President Bush, a quintessential big-government conservative, has courageously pushed for Social Security reform despite the skepticism of many other big-government conservatives.

Rather than being a movement, big-government conservatism is more of a tendency in conservative politics and conservative thought. As such it is an amalgam of at least five currents of political thought that have been feeding into the conservative movement for many years.

• Neoconservatives, whose "founding fathers" were mostly former Marxists who became disillusioned with the American Left during the 1960s, have generally been identified with their support for a hawkish U.S. foreign policy and the debacle in Iraq. However, as they moved into various Republican administrations and became part of the larger conservative movement, they have also had a profound effect on domestic policy. Reflecting their roots on the left, they have not shared the traditional conservative skepticism about big government. Rather, they maintained a lingering affection for FDR and the New Deal. If they tended to reject Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, it was because they thought it had a corrosive effect on culture, not because they objected to the welfare state on principle. With conservatives in charge, they now embrace social welfare programs as an opportunity to encourage bourgeois virtues.

• National-greatness conservatives draw much of their inspiration from neoconservatism but take the ideas a step further. National-greatness conservatism argues that Americans need to be united around great national projects, bigger than themselves. Believers in national-greatness conservatism see Teddy Roosevelt as a hero and start from the premise that "Individual ambition and will power [should be] channeled into the cause of national greatness, and in making the nation great, individuals are able to join their narrow concerns to a larger national project." Although no more than a handful of conservatives publicly identify themselves as national-greatness conservatives, they have a very loud and influential voice.

• The Religious Right, once content simply to be "left alone," has become increasingly comfortable with the use of government power to enforce its moral vision. Moreover, the incorporation of evangelical Protestants and ethnic Catholics into the conservative movement brought along groups of people who had little in common with economic conservatives. Indeed, many were former Democrats who were comfortable with expansive government programs.

• Supply-siders emphasize tax cuts rather than cutting back the size of government. Indeed, many openly argued that tax cuts would increase government revenues, making expenditure cuts unnecessary. This view meant they could avoid messy debates about the proper size and role of government. As former Rep. Jack Kemp, a leading cheerleader for supply-side economics, put it, they could govern "with no political pain, i.e., having to convince the voters to accept any real absolute cuts in government spending."

• Technophiles embrace the idea of a "third wave" of technological change that can solve social problems. Perhaps best identified with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, they place a high value on programmatic efficiency and believe that government's role is to invest in the technologies of the future. They believe, in Gingrich's words, that "Systems, rather than individuals, should be the focus of improving production."

To some extent big-government conservatives simply style themselves as realists who are adapting traditional conservative ideals to the public mood. Underlying their approach is a belief that, in the end, reducing the size of government is impossible. And, if the growth of government is inevitable, conservatives should stop worrying about the size of government and simply try to make the best of it. For example, Fred Barnes, executive editor of theWeekly Standard, who claims credit for coining the term "big-government conservative," criticizes those conservatives who "cling to the hope that someday, somehow, the federal government will be reduced in size."

Thus, when small-government conservatives in the House, led by Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), demanded spending reductions to offset funds that President Bush had requested in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Barnes scoffed: "Their goal, with hurricane recovery costs soaring, is what it's always been: to hold down and restrain the growth of government. It is an impossible dream, or close to impossible."

This view seems unduly defeatist. Public opinion polls consistently show a majority of Americans say they would prefer smaller government with fewer services to a larger government with more services. Moreover, the political, academic, and media climates are certainly more hospitable to limited-government themes than they were in, say, the late 1970s. That was a time before the advent of conservative talk radio or think tanks. Conservative ideas like school choice or individual accounts or Social Security were little more than quaint academic concepts. Yet, that was the period when Ronald Reagan was able to rise to the presidency. In contrast, big-government conservatism appears to have led Republicans to electoral disaster.

In actuality, however, there is more to big-government conservatism than mere pragmatism. After all, the Bush administration and its big-government conservative allies in Congress have not simply acquiesced in the level of government that currently exists; they have actively sought to expand it.

Big-government conservatives see a positive society-shaping role for government. George W. Bush, as DiIulio pointed out, criticized what he called the "destructive mind-set: the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than 'Leave us alone.'" In another speech, Bush noted, "too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself."

Of course the charge that traditional small-government conservatives hate government is unfair. Conservatives have always acknowledged a limited role for government. But they have been skeptical of state power, seeing government as something of a necessary evil. They share F. A. Hayek's concern that central planning and its outgrowth into the welfare state will ultimately and inevitably lead to the eclipse of liberty.

Big-government conservatives dismiss such concerns. They reject Hayek's belief that we are on "the road to serfdom." They do not "feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable." Whereas traditionally conservatives have wanted to keep government out of their lives as much as possible, big-government conservatives argue, "Wishing to be left alone isn't a governing doctrine."

Therefore, as Barnes points out, "Big government conservatives are favorably disposed toward . . . a 'conservative welfare state.'" They are willing to use "what normally would be seen as liberal means—activist government—for conservative ends. And they're willing to spend more and increase the size of government in the process."

Traditional conservatives operated from a position of humility when it came to what government could accomplish. They rejected what Hayek called the "fatal conceit" that government can redesign society according to some sort of rational plan. But big-government conservatives share with contemporary liberals a belief that government can design policies based on incentives and penalties that will result in people's behaving in exactly the way policymakers seek. For both liberals and big-government conservatives, government is neither good nor bad. It is simply a tool to be used in the pursuit of higher goals.

Thus, big-government conservatism "measures its success not by how big or small government is but by the habits it encourages in its citizens," according to Brooks. Those values and habits include thrift, hard work, charity, patriotism, and especially traditional sexual and family mores. If a government program advances these goals it is a good program and a proper role for government almost by definition.

For example, in his book on the Bush presidency, Rebel in Chief, Barnes approvingly quotes a Bush aide as saying:

Government funding of effective teen abstinence programs is different from government funding of agencies that hand out condoms to kids. Supporting adoption centers is different from supporting abortion clinics. Supporting anti-drug efforts is different from supporting medical marijuana initiatives.

As former Bush aide Daniel Casse writes," What it comes down to is that, for Bush, there are conservative goals that take precedence over limiting the reach of government."

Big-government conservatives also see an active role for government in dealing with such issues as poverty, health care, and education. During his renomination speech at the 2004 Republican convention, George W. Bush expressed his belief that "government should help people improve their lives." Bush has praised both FDR's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and said: "We've had enough of the stale debate between big government and indifferent government. Government must be active enough to fund services for the poor."

Whereas conservatives traditionally thought social welfare to be the province of private charity and civil society, big-government conservatives believe that only government action can solve those problems. Indeed, for adherents of this philosophy, government action may not just be necessary; it may be preferable. Thus, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation criticizes "the mythology that the public sector welfare system is bad and corrupt and destructive. And out here there is this nonprofit private sector which is good, and vital and so forth." Rector writes, "the government food stamp program [is] more conservative and more effective as a charity arm than almost any private sector food bank you could find."

This does not mean that big-government conservatives are wedded to the current structures of the welfare state. They seek more "choice and accountability" in government programs. They would incorporate more market-based processes. They prefer incentives to heavy-handed regulation. But, ultimately, in contrast to the Goldwater tradition, big-government conservatism seeks to streamline government and make it more efficient, not to reduce its size.

At the same time, big-government conservatives are suspicious of unfettered free-market capitalism. Irving Kristol, the neoconservative "godfather" of big-government conservatism, famously gave capitalism "two cheers," not three. Former education secretary and drug czar William Bennett criticizes "unbridled capitalism" as a "problem for that whole dimension of things we call the realm of values and human relationships."

After all, markets that cater to the unregulated demands of consumers produce things such as pornography and rap music, which do not contribute to those virtues that conservatives champion. As Brooks warns, if Americans "think of nothing but their narrow self-interest, of their commercial activities, they lose a sense of grand aspiration and noble purpose." This belief makes big-government conservatives far more willing to countenance business regulation than traditional conservatives. As Irving Kristol says, government must take "a degree of responsibility for helping to shape the preferences that the people exercise in a free market—to 'elevate' them if you will."

Hayek spoke of "spontaneous order." Goldwater sought "freedom" first. Reagan saw government as "the problem not the solution. " But, as we will see, big-government conservatives would take conservatism in a very different direction.

A New Brand of Conservatism

American conservatism is, in many ways, a sometimes uneasy mixture of two important strains of thought. On one hand is a profound classically liberal or libertarian tradition that takes its cue from John Stuart Mill's admonition: "The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

On the other hand is a strong belief in the traditions and institutions of society. Rather than Mill, it is more attuned to Edmund Burke's wisdom: "We owe an implicit reverence to all the institutions of our ancestors," and "But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly vice and madness, without tuition or restraint."

These two strains of conservatism have not always seen eye to eye. They may have very different views of what, for example, state or local drug laws should be, or what is the proper role of religion in society. But in the United States, both have been united by an opposition to overweening federal power. They share a "common dislike of the intervention of government, especially national, centralized government in the economic, social, political, and intellectual lives of citizens," in the words of conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet.

Neither libertarian nor traditionalist conservatives would countenance a federal takeover of education or a massive new health care entitlement. Both are appalled by out-of-control federal spending. Both seek limits to federal power. They might disagree about what small government is, but at their heart both want a smaller government than we have today.

Not so big-government conservatives. Indeed, big-government conservatism has little in common with either libertarian or traditionalist conservatism. Rather, it represents something altogether new in the development of conservative thought.

Big-government conservatives recognize that they are taking conservatism in a new direction. Irving Kristol calls for converting "the Republican Party, and conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy." Barnes says, "Bush's conservatism is new and different."

Rich Lowry of National Review suggests that big-government conservatism is unlikely to survive beyond the Bush presidency. He sees the recent enthusiasm for increasing the size and power of government as an aberration, but unless traditional small-government conservatives wake up and fight back, that may be just wishful thinking.

Big-government conservatism is not just a creature of the Bush administration. Big-government conservatism is evident throughout Washington these days. Congress contains few small-government conservatives. Indeed, the pressure from Capitol Hill is often for even bigger government than the White House suggests. Those few voices for small government in the Republican caucus are often marginalized or disciplined for a failure of party loyalty.

Moreover, big-government conservatives have an effective media tool in the Weekly Standard , which has practically become a house organ for the movement. Conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation are well stocked with big-government conservatives. Indeed, Newsday columnist James Pinkerton says of the Heritage Foundation:

The folks at 214 Massachusetts Avenue were willing to play ball with big government. That is, they have abandoned the old Goldwaterish critique of the Leviathan State in favor of a sophisticated wonkery that seeks out Third-Way-ish approaches to thread the needle between doing nothing and doing everything. That's the art of political compromise, of course, but in so doing, Heritage abandoned black-and-white absolutism—freedom good, bureaucrats bad—for the grayer vocabulary of Benthamism.

Such leading Republican candidates for president in 2008 as Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney all support different variations of big-government conservatism.

But important reasons both philosophical and practical exist to resist this trend.

A Flawed Philosophy

As we shall see in the pages to come, many of the proposals so enthusiastically supported by big-government conservatives would have precisely the opposite effects from those they desire. In the long run, big government is not likely to be compatible with either economic growth or "the bourgeois virtues" of thrift, delayed gratification, honesty, probity, and loyalty that big-government conservatives value. A growing welfare state will inevitably drain resources from the private sector and put them to less efficient uses.

Moreover, by substituting government action for the voluntary activities of civil society, big-government conservatives threaten to undermine the very civic virtues that they seek to champion. If people come to believe that government will act in their place, they are less likely to become involved themselves. Indeed, we already see substantial evidence that private charitable giving tends to decline when government welfare increases.

Big-government conservatives also display a great naiveté about the way government works. They appear to believe that limited programs will not grow or see their original purposes corrupted. But little in the history of government justifies such faith. Even those government programs that do the most damage today, including those decried by big-government conservatives, were devised with the best of intentions. Good intentions, however, seldom survive the realities of the programs in practice.

Big-government conservatives imagine themselves as practicing what Jonathan Rauch has called "demand-side conservatism." The idea is that big government programs can be used to eliminate the conditions that create a demand for big government. Thus, if government can increase marriage, reduce out-of-wedlock births, increase saving, put people to work, educate our children, and so on, eventually less need—and less political support—will exist for government programs.

This hypothesis is sort of the conservative version of the Marxist belief in the eventual "withering away of the state." And it is likely to be about as successful. After all, can anyone recall the last time a government bureaucracy declared that it had fulfilled its mission and now should be abolished?

In their excellent history of the American conservative movement, John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge warn: "From a conservative viewpoint, government is usually an institution that cuts to the Left. Bureaucrats inevitably modify programs to suit their own purposes." When a government program is in place, it exists for better or worse. When conservatives concede a role for government on an issue, the precedent exists, for better or worse. Thus, although the Bush administration may be pleased that the No Child Left Behind Act allows the Department of Education to impose its views and theories on the country's schools, future administrations may have very different goals and priorities. Big-government conservatives either don't understand this possibility, or don't care.

As Bruce Bartlett points out, big-government conservatism is particularly susceptible to the type of corruption that has become so prevalent in Washington in recent years. Because it has abandoned much of conservative principle and embraced the idea that government can do "good" things, not surprisingly those "good" things are often favors for favored constituencies.

But big-government conservatives are wrong in a far more important and fundamental way. Our Founding Fathers set up a constitutional framework for government that strictly limited government power. They set in place barriers to the exercise of government power, devising an intricate system of checks and balances, dividing power between national and state governments as well as among three independent branches of government. And, most important, they established a government of enumerated powers, carefully spelling out those few things that the federal government could do and reserving those powers not specified to the states and the people.

These constitutional limits seem to have little meaning to big-government conservatives. With little difference from today's liberals, big-government conservatives feel free to disregard the Constitution when it serves their purpose. Where, after all, does President Bush find in the Constitution authorization for the federal government to govern local school systems?

Barry Goldwater once said, "The conservative's first concern will always be, am I maximizing freedom." That is not the first or even a major concern of big-government conservatives. Former senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), who was one of the leading proponents of this line of thought during his time on Capitol Hill, wrote in his book, It Takes A Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, that conservatives should reject the idea of "freedom to choose, irrespective of choice." True liberty, he wrote, is not "the freedom to be left alone," but "the freedom to attend to one's duties to God, to family, and to neighbors."

All of this brings big-government conservatives full circle to where, as far as the size and scope of government are concerned, little difference exists between them and modern liberals. Liberals have long held that individual preferences must give way to the "greater good" and "the needs of society." Hillary Clinton once explained her political philosophy by saying, "It's time to put the common good, the national interest, ahead of individuals." How much different is that from Rick Santorum's belief that freedom does not "celebrate the individual above society"? Or Brooks's admonition that the American people need to "serve a cause larger than self-interest"?

Conservatives once were appalled when then vice president Al Gore said government should be "like grandparents, in the sense that grandparents perform a nurturing role." But President Bush takes that attitude even further. According to his former chief of staff Andrew Card, "This president sees America as we think about a 10-year-old child."

Those of us who believe in limited government and individual liberty have long become accustomed to threats from the Democratic left. But, today, an equal threat may come from the Republican right. Should big-government conservatives win the debate over the direction of conservatism, it will represent a fundamental change in the balance of political forces. Are we destined for a future of debates only between liberals who want to increase the size and power of government and conservatives who want to increase the size and power of government?

If conservatives abandon the ideal of limited constitutional government, who then will speak for liberty?


From Leviathan on the Right by Michael D. Tanner. Copyright © 2007 by the Cato Institute. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher.


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