Reply to Comments: Small Successes are Big Achievements

Gosh, I’m not sure we have enough disagreement here to sustain a second round!

Still, some responses:

Bruce Bartlett’s proposal for a VAT reminds me of a Larry Summers witticism: Explaining why the United States remains one of the rare major economies on earth without a VAT, Summers said, “Democrats oppose it because it is regressive, and Republicans oppose it because it is a mighty revenue-raising machine.” He then added: “And we will get a VAT when Democrats figure out that the VAT is a mighty revenue-raising engine—and Republicans figure out that it is regressive.”

Bartlett raises the VAT, he explains, less as a serious policy proposal and more in order to shock conservatives into a “clear-eyed understanding of where we are and where we are going, absent drastic and unlikely changes in law and policy.”

If we must have tax increases, the VAT would not be one of my choices, for the reason Summers predicts—I fear it will generate so much revenue as to accelerate government spending. I’d look instead at Irwin Stelzer’s idea of a tax on oil and natural gas. I’d also want to consider taxing employer-provided health insurance as income: not only would such a tax be highly progressive, but it would also advance the important policy goal of severing health insurance from employment.

Bartlett’s idea at least has the great merit of forcing conservatives to recognize that President Bush’s tax-cutting achievements have been rendered unstable by over-spending—and that the GOP’s failure to act on spending today threatens to guarantee tax increases in the future.

I agree with Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam about the importance of addressing the social problems that drive the growth of government. This is the direction in which my own thinking has been trending in the dozen years since I published Dead Right. I like their term “demand-side conservatism.” I am not sure that there is very much government can do either about the instability of family life or the insecurity of employment in the dynamic modern economy. But the health care problem is not beyond the reach of sensible policy—which is why by the way I think Gov. Romney’s Massachusetts health care reforms deserve conservative support.

I wish I could agree more with my host, David Boaz. Alas, his argument here strikes me as wishful thinking pure and simple. His citation of one poll about Americans’ attitudes toward government reminds me of those polls that ask: “Did you vote in the last election?” Regularly, some 75% of Americans say they did—when the real count is usually in the 50s. In other words, Americans are perfectly capable of expressing dislike of big government in the abstract—while passionately demanding more and more of it in the particular. (See, e.g., Republican Senate majority, antics of.)

More generally, the libertarian project of fusing together limited government on the one hand and open borders, drug legalization, and gay rights on the other seems to me to be hopelessly intellectually incoherent. Importing millions of poor people, making dangerous addictive substances even more readily available than they are today, and smashing up the traditional family are all bound (as I argued in Dead Right and as Douthat and Salam pungently reaffirm here) to create more need for the services government provides. The Boaz synthesis seems to me the equivalent of a weight-loss program that urges dieters to exercise more while doubling their intake of candy.

Let me turn last to Ryan Sager’s interesting external commentary. I focus on the 1990s as the key moment not to excuse President Bush, but because they really were a unique opportunity.

The important thing to understand about the growth of government is how automatic it is. The earmarks and pork against which people like Sen. McCain rail are genuinely obnoxious, but we could eliminate them all tomorrow without making more than a very small difference to the government spending trend line. That trend line is powered by promises made to America’s retirees over the past four decades. Altering the trend requires bold and imaginative reforms to the way America provides pensions and health care. It’s not a matter of cutting and trimming; much less of refraining from new appropriations. To slow the growth of government, Americans need to reinvent Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other hugely popular, hugely complex programs.

Unfortunately, the legislative process can only cope with so much boldness and imagination at any one time. After 9/11, foreign policy and defense were bound to dominate the national agenda and the presidential and congressional calendar.

Ryan’s claim, “While 9/11 of course pulled focus away from the domestic agenda, if anything that should have helped the Republicans get things done,” strikes me as unrealistic in the extreme. Even Franklin Roosevelt, the most powerful president in American history, jettisoned his domestic program after Pearl Harbor. It was gutsy in the extreme for George W. Bush to try both to wage war in Iraq and also reform Social Security at home. If he failed on that latter point, it surely was not for lack of trying. Would he have done better had he added Medicare to his to-do list? I doubt it.

We can all of us benefit from Bruce Bartlett’s warning against the delusion that political change is just a matter of wishing it so:

Implicitly, many in the small government community put themselves in the position of the world’s most powerful dictator, able to simply slash government programs willy-nilly, without regard to programmatic details, the real world consequences for those who depend on such programs, and without having to worry about where the votes will come from to achieve their goals. I often hear libertarians says things like just cut spending across the board, eliminate X department, or abolish this or that program, as if slashing government is as easy as waving a magic wand.

When they come to realize the extreme difficulty of making even minuscule changes in the growth path of federal spending and the inherent contradiction of their implicit position—needing non-libertarian means to achieve libertarian goals—many libertarians and conservatives withdraw from the political process altogether, refusing even to vote because they see it as lending credibility to a system they find abhorrent. The result of this disengagement is to leave the forces in favor of bigger government with even less resistance to their goals.

I’m with Bruce. We should re-engage—but always with a clear-eyed understanding that even very small successes represent very big achievements.

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.”