News Notes

There’s good news and bad news in some recent publications. First, the bad news.

David Brooks again makes the case that conservatism is appropriately moving from less-government conservatism to strong-government conservatism. A journalist suggested to me yesterday that the Republican Party has shifted from a business-oriented party reaching out to social conservatives to a social-conservative party trying to hold on to business and economic conservatives. If he and Brooks are right, then the libertarian tendency to vote Republican will be increasingly strained. Libertarians may even come to see “big government conservatism”— manifested everywhere from Medicare expansion and overspending to wiretapping and “your papers, please” as a bigger enemy than the feckless Democrats. Though, to be sure, the Democrats continue to do their best to alienate pro-business and pro-market voters.

And speaking of libertarians and how they vote, a new Pew survey finds that 9 percent of voters (out of 58 percent who can be classified ideologically) are libertarian on both economic and social issues. That’s a lower figure than other surveys such as Gallup have shown, but still enough to analyze. And, as Ryan Sager notes, Pew found that libertarians voted only 57-40 for Bush over Kerry. Since libertarians are both younger and more affluent than other ideological groups, that’s bad news for Republicans. But that may be good news for libertarians, if both parties decide to compete for their votes.

And finally, David Henderson offers some good news in his Policy Review article “Why Spending Has Got to Give.” In the tradition of Herb Stein, who famously said “If something cannot go on, then it will stop,” Henderson argues that American political culture has never let taxes and spending get much above 20 percent of GDP. And opposition to higher taxes remains strong, so the likelihood is that one way or another entitlement spending will get reined in. Reforms, he says, will become “politically feasible … once they become politically necessary.”

Finally, I certainly want to agree with Bruce Bartlett that spending isn’t the only measure of freedom. Americans feel free to pursue happiness, and they mostly are. In the past 50 years there have been major steps toward freedom for women, blacks, and gays. We have deregulated many parts of the economy, ended the draft, democratized the capital markets, and overthrown many old rules and restrictions. Both the Sixties and the Eighties happened, and most Americans are glad, though diehards on right and left continue to agitate for their reversal. But nanny-statism, Big Government Conservatism, and the promise of perfect security in a permanent war remind us of the need for eternal vigilance.

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.”