For Strong-Government Conservatism

For David Boaz, David Brooks’ talk of strong-government conservatism is the bad news and David Henderson’s suggestion that “spending has got to give” is the good news. I look at things somewhat differently.

Say we accept Henderson’s very persuasive argument, that a sharp increase in lifetime net tax rates–the inevitable result of an unreformed status quo–will eventually yield a powerful political constituency for market-based reforms. We can go even further. As Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote have argued, cultural homogeneity often corresponds to larger welfare states, perhaps because the language of social solidarity is most formidable when married to an exclusivist ethnic politics. America’s demographic composition is changing at a fast clip, and the families clamoring for money for schools will literally look very different from those fighting both to preserve old-age entitlements and to resist property-tax increases.

Technological innovations are likely to make tax collection more difficult. It’s very easy to imagine families disadvantaged by the skyrocketing cost of entitlements choosing to drop out of the mainstream economy, shifting more effort in the direction of household production and informal means of exchange, in the process dodging taxes.

If this sounds fanciful, you need only look at the truly vast black economies of Western Europe. The government could, of course, become more intrusive, and we could move in the direction of more consumption taxes, as in Europe. But that will only lead to wilier efforts to avoid what many will come to see as an unjust tax burden. Imagine a neighborhood that gets its electricity from a power plant the size of an RV, fueled by waste products from victory gardens and trash heaps.

Remember that our tax system rests on the shared normative understanding that the taxes we pay are more or less fair, and that everyone else is paying so we should too. It is a delicate latticework, and it can come undone very easily.

Really, it’s those who believe that a vastly larger welfare state is even realistic—let alone desirable—who have some explaining to do. Perhaps we will see a welfare state that makes a winner out of almost everyone, or at least 51 percent of the electorate. Getting there will be tough, particularly if you kill the growth goose that lays the golden eggs.

So if, arguendo, we accept that Henderson is right, and that government will shrink thanks to very powerful structural, technological, demographic forces, could it be that the strong-government conservatism David Brooks describes is exactly what we need?

Ross points out that the political logic of fusionism remains sound, and he is absolutely right. And yet it’s worth remembering that what you might call classical fusionism—the view that we would all be virtuous if only we didn’t have to contend with the overweening state—has been battered and bruised by the sharp decline in marriage rates and rising rates of illegitimacy. You can’t undo history in one fell swoop. When self-reliance becomes a necessity and not just a mantra, a day that is rapidly approaching, not everyone will be prepared. Many will falter and fail, finding their lives more strenuous and demanding than is presently the case. It’s true, choosing your own health care plan is more vexing than accepting whatever it is your employer or the government has on offer. That can’t be avoided. But is there some way we can strengthen the capacities of citizens and communities to thrive in what will likely be a more competitive, challenging environment?

Strong-government conservatism is, in my view, about strengthening citizens and communities. Unleashing the potential of the most hard-working among us is a good and worthwhile thing to do. The trouble is that the republic doesn’t rise and fall on the backs of Enterprisers alone. Tax-cutting is not enough, particularly for those who pay no taxes but live in broken communities filled with broken families, communities that can be found in the Great Plains, in the inner suburbs, and in the inner cities.

In fact, strong-government conservatism and “bleeding-heart libertarianism” have much in common. Both are empirical sensibilities. Both accept that a smaller government is generally a good thing, but that we ought to be pragmatic and cautious about how we get there. Both accept that lower taxes are a good thing, but that accounting gimmicks and tax shifts serve the interests of almost no one. There is more common ground than you might think.

For example, say a strong-government conservative sought to spend more federal money on health care, to move in the direction of universal coverage. A libertarian would object as a matter of principle. But what if the increased expenditures came from the outsized tax expenditures that make up the “invisible welfare state”? What if the increased expenditures were part of a comprehensive effort to eliminate anti-competitive practices in the provision of medical care, to sever health care from employment, to improve the quality of care, to give individuals more control? And what if this proposal blunted the appeal of a government takeover of a vast swathe of the economy? Social policy, alas, isn’t made in a vacuum.

The obvious alternative is to instead advance seemingly less-expensive piecemeal proposals, like HSAs, that slowly chip away at existing arrangements, that benefit the relatively affluent, and that undermine the popularity of small-government solutions through their manifest failure to solve the most pressing problems.

Having worked for David Brooks, I’ll understand entirely if you consider me hopelessly biased, but I happen to think his Hamiltonian approach is the best way forward. Unless, of course, you’d rather move to New Hampshire, or some unclaimed island.

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.”