Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish

Last week I turned on NPR and heard some crazy woman ranting “We have two oilmen in the White House. The logical follow-up from that is $3 a gallon gasoline. It is no accident; it is a cause and effect, a cause and effect.” Then the next morning I watched CNN and discovered that the ranting woman was Nancy Pelosi.

So it’s hard to summon up hope that libertarians might find common cause with the Democratic Party.

But the Republican party doesn’t seem very inviting lately, either.

As one astute commentator said recently: “The Republican Party in Washington is in trouble not because it’s overrun by crooks, but because … it has degenerated into a caricature of the party that swept to power 11 years ago promising to take on the federal bureaucracy and liberate the creative genius of American society.”

And Tony Snow was right.

Along with all the snowballing fiscal problems that David Frum cites, I would add the very discouraging rise of nanny-statism on both right and left. This takes many forms—Clinton was famous for “I feel your pain and I have a program for it.” Bush II responded with “compassionate conservatism” and “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” Both conceptions offer a sweeping mandate for the federal government, one never envisioned by the Founders nor even by FDR. They combine Progressivism with Prozac.

And once in a while politicians reveal the patronizing attitude toward the voters that underlies these promises. Vice President Al Gore told an audience, “The federal government should never be the baby sitter, the parents,” but should be “more like grandparents in the sense that grandparents perform a nurturing role and are aware of what parenting was like but no longer exercise that kind of authority.”

Bush’s chief of staff Andy Card disagreed: The government should be the parents, he said; “this president sees America as we think about a 10-year-old child,” in need of firm parental protection.

And so we get sexual harassment laws from the Democrats—including the very one that tripped up Clinton—and niggling regulations on workplaces, and smoking bans, and fat taxes, and gun bans, and programs to tuck us in at night.

Republicans used to accuse Democrats of setting up a nanny state, one that would regulate every nook and cranny of our lives. They took control of Congress in 1994 by declaring that Democrats had given us “government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” After 10 years in power, however, the Republicans have seen the Democrats’ intrusiveness and raised them.

So from the Republicans we get federal money for churches; and congressional investigations into textbook pricing, the college football bowl system, the firing of Terrell Owens, video games, the television rating system, you name it; and huge new fines for indecency on television; and crackdowns on medical marijuana and steroids and ephedra; and federal intervention in the sad case of Terri Schiavo; and the No Child Left Behind Act; and federal subsidies for marriage; and (for less favored constituencies) a constitutional amendment to override the marriage laws of the 50 states.

Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be disagreeing with Frum. The good news is that lots of Americans don’t like big spending and nanny statism. In the most recent poll that asked the question, 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. Sure, people may give this answer to a theoretical question and rather different answers to questions about specific kinds of spending—but then, those polls never attach the tax bill to the spending proposal.

Ronald Reagan won two landslide elections on a limited-government platform. Bush has twice squeaked through with his big-government conservatism.

Gallup polls have consistently found that 20 percent of Americans are neither liberal nor conservative but libertarian, opposing the use of government either to “promote traditional values” or to “do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.” That’s only slightly below the percentages for liberals and conservatives. (Some want government to do it all, and some don’t offer classifiable responses.)

According to the 2004 exit poll, 17 million people voted for John Kerry but did not think the government should do more to solve the country’s problems. And 28 million Bush voters support either gay marriage or civil unions. That’s 45 million who don’t fit the red-blue model. They seem to have broadly libertarian attitudes.

Social conservatives are better organized than libertarian voters. They have evangelical churches, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family constantly advocating their views with Republican strategists. Libertarians have think tanks. It may well be that people who want something from government—whether spending programs or lifestyle regulations—are more likely to organize politically.

Where’s the political leadership for this sizable group of Americans who reject the red-blue dichotomy?

Only one House member voted against both the Federal Marriage Amendment and the trillion-dollar Medicare expansion. Only one senator voted against the FMA and supported the Coburn amendment to cut spending.

So one reason the libertarian part of the electorate hasn’t been winning many battles is that it hasn’t had much leadership. Reagan proved that articulate leadership for limited government could make a difference. A candidate with a more consistent philosophy, perhaps a younger candidate with the energy to keep fighting after his first year in office, might achieve even more.

It’s always risky to make too much out of any one election. Yes, as Frum says, George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative.” But he won the nomination on the strength of his name, a massive fundraising operation, and the weakness of the field. And while wonks noticed the thoughtful defense of big-government conservatism in Bush’s 1999 Indianapolis speech, I’ll wager more voters heard him say, over and over again on the campaign trail, “My opponent trusts government. I trust you.” In his first presidential debate with Al Gore, Bush contrasted his own vision of tax reduction with that of his opponent, who would “increase the size of government dramatically.” Gore, Bush declared, would “empower Washington,” but “my passion and my vision is to empower Americans to be able to make decisions for themselves in their own lives.”

It’s not the first time that limited-government voters have fallen for the old bait-and-switch.

Frum says the best thing limited-government advocates can hope for is a Republican Party that drags its heels on the growth of government, but he acknowledges that slowing down the achievement of your opponent’s vision is very different from having “a vision of one’s own.”

Political movements need a vision. In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek complained that conservatism lacked a vision: “by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.” Hayek called for a vision of “the building of a free society.”

In the pre-Reagan era, most Republicans lacked such a vision. They resisted the New Deal and the Great Society but rarely challenged the ideas underlying those programs. Reagan offered something new: “a banner of no pale pastels but bold colors.” In his first inaugural address he was clear:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.

Since Reagan, or perhaps since the middle of 1981, Republicans have slid back to stand-pattism. Or to something worse: being embarrassed by their own ideas. Lacking a positive vision, they are inarticulate in defending free enterprise and limited government and find themselves conceding the other side’s case. Lacking a consistent philosophy, they stumble into intellectually indefensible contradictions: welfare cuts and business subsidies, federalism and a national marriage law.

Where there is no vision, the people perish. Or at least the party and its principles.

The first task for advocates of limited government is to develop and advance that vision. The Founders, the abolitionists, the free-traders, the Progressives, the Reaganites all honed and advocated their ideas long before they saw political victory. And we must translate that vision into policy proposals, organizations, and political movements. As John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, advocates of liberty and limited government must make ready the ideas, the platform, the networks that could serve a political leader who wanted to take on the task of clearing away the late 20th century’s accumulated burden of bureaucratic systems, unfunded liabilities, overextended military commitments, and usurpations of the responsibilities of free citizens.

We don’t have to resign ourselves to a counsel of despair. It would, in any case, prove self-fulfilling.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, bestselling author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum considers whether the time has come and gone for the small government heirs of Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich. His answer: “the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.” Government slashing types have never been more than an active minority in the GOP, Frum argues, and there is little chance that Republicans going forward will repudiate the spirit of the big-government Bush agenda. The small-government conservative’s best hope is that, like the defunct Whigs and Progressives, elements of their ideas and ideals will survive as a part of the political consensus.

Response Essays

  • Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, agrees with Frum’s gloomy assessment of the prospects for small government and argues that conservatives and libertarians often compound the problem by failing to understand the magnitude and political intractability of the government’s non-discretionary entitlement programs. Slashing government is not “as easy as waving a magic wand.” Bartlett warns of the danger of resigning in frustration and calls for “a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals.”

  • Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argue that although a renewed push for smaller government isn’t in the cards, Republicans can realistically hope to win reforms that promote “freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative”–values at the core of the small-government movement. In the current climate, Douthat and Salam write, “simply calling for the rollback of government appeals only to those already in the winner’s circle of American life…” So, they argue, Republicans “need to accept that government will remain large in the short run … while pursuing long-range strategies that will produce a more opportunity-friendly, less statist America.”

  • Cato executive vice president David Boaz argues that the Republicans have failed Reagan’s vision, offering their own brand of meddlesome statism as an alternative to the Democrats’. Although there is in the U.S. a constituency for limited government, Boaz argues, it needs a leader. The task for “advocates of liberty and limited government” is to “make ready the ideas, the platform, the networks that could serve a political leader who wanted to take on the task of clearing away the late 20th century’s accumulated burden of bureaucratic systems, unfunded liabilities, overextended military commitments, and usurpations of the responsibilities of free citizens.”