About this Issue

The era of big government is alive and well. You might think that after dominating all branches of the federal government for more than a half decade, Republicans, who like to talk big about lean and limited government, might have taken Leviathan down a few notches. But life under Bush has been less than a dream for conservatives who agreed with the Gipper when he said “government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Republicans under Bush have tallied up a budget deficit of historic proportions, added an enormous entitlement to an already unsustainable system, created a vast new security bureaucracy, and strengthened Washington’s grip on local schools. Are Republicans selling out and failing to lead, or are they just giving voters what they want? Does the spirit of Goldwater flicker still in the breasts of Republicans? Or is the Contract with America stamped null and void?

Former Bush speechwriter and bestselling political author David Frum starts this month’s discussion with a lead essay on whether the window of opportunity has closed for small-government conservatives. Joining Frum in the conversation this month we have Bruce Bartlett, author of the controversial book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy; political writers Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, proprietors of The American Scene blog, and joint authors of a forthcoming book on “Sam’s Club Republicans”; and David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute.


Lead Essay

Republicans and the Flight of Opportunity

A Roman poet composed this riddle 1700 years ago:

I am a goddess seldom found and known to few. I am ever flying. I am bald behind that none may catch me [by the hair] as I flee. Remorse bears me company. When I have flown away, she is retained by those who did not grasp me as I passed.

The “goddess” was Opportunity—and conservatives and Republicans today can appreciate the poignancy of the poet’s description of her departure.

In the 1990s, the newly elected Republican congressional majority enjoyed what we can now see was the fairest opportunity in half a century to reduce the size and cost of the federal government:

* They had won a stunning and unexpected mid-term victory against a stunned and demoralized Democratic administration elected two years before by only 42% of the vote.

* They were backed by a bipartisan consensus that the huge deficits of the early 1990s had to be brought under control – without any further repeat of the tax increases of 1991 and 1993.

* The Cold War had ended, making possible substantial reductions in defense spending.

* The baby boomers were entering their peak earning years, with the first retirements still almost two decades away – leaving plenty of time for any necessary adjustments to retirement programs.

* The Soviet Union had collapsed; China was opening; and the prestige of free-market solutions was rocketing to an unprecedented apex.

* A huge stock market boom was gathering—creating an enormous potential constituency for a shift from defined benefit to defined contribution approaches to pensions and health care.

And to give the GOP due credit, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, Republicans did try—and to some extent succeeded—to make some deep changes. They reformed farm programs, slowed the growth of overall government spending, and struggled to raise the individual contribution to Medicare.

But we all know how the story ended. Bloodied and battered by the government shutdown and the impeachment battle, the congressional Republicans shifted course after 1998. Medicare reform was abandoned; spending accelerated.

And this change of course was ratified by the whole party in the nomination contest of 1999-2000, when George W. Bush swept to a crushing triumph by campaigning as a “compassionate conservative” opposed to budget-cutting and committed to maintaining Medicare and Medicaid in more or less their existing form. In September 1999, he condemned congressional Republican attempts to curb the Earned Income Tax Credit as “balancing their budget on the backs of the poor.” In the following general election, Bush committed himself to adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

At the time, these maneuvers looked to many Republicans like wise and necessary adjustments to political reality. And since Bush had also committed himself to broad tax cuts, free trade, and Social Security reform, many gambled that the his self-described “different kind” of conservatism would nonetheless balance out as a favorable sequel to Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich limited government conservatism.

This assessment has obviously proven wrong.

The retirement of the baby boomers is now closely pending—and the time in which they could make adjustments to altered programs has drastically shrunk. The Medicare program has been vastly expanded by the Bush administration—and Social Security reform collapsed without so much as a bill ever being introduced into Congress. Defense budgets, which dropped from 6% of GDP in the mid-1980s to 3% in the late 1990s, have recovered to about 4.5% of GDP and will likely remain at that level for many years to come. And deficits in the $400 billion range not only preclude future tax cuts—but also raise real doubts about the sustainability of the Bush tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the pressures for even further expansion of government are gathering. Health care costs bear ever more heavily on the middle-class: Rising health burdens help explain why wage growth has stalled despite strong overall economic growth. The ranks of the uninsured continue to grow.

The tax bite is pre-programmed to gulp down ever greater portions of individual income. The Bush tax cuts expire in 2010, and the Alternative Minimum Tax applies to ever more millions of upper-middle-class families.

The free-trade momentum of the 1990s has likewise evaporated. American policy has turned in a protectionist direction since 2001: steel tariffs, the abuse of “mad cow” disease to bar Canadian beef from US markets, and so on. Populist-nationalist governments have come to power in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, and (likely) soon in Mexico, dooming President Bush’s once-bright hopes for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Whether you interpret these facts, as say Bruce Bartlett does, as a deliberate betrayal of the Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich limited government agenda – or as an unfortunate series of unintended consequences—the result is more or less the same:

The fairest chance to achieve the limited-government agenda passed with only very limited conservative success.

The state is growing again—and it is pre-programmed to carry on growing. Health spending will rise, pension spending will rise, and taxes will rise.

Now I still continue to hope that the Republican Party will lean against these trends. But there’s a big difference between being the party of less government and a party of small government. It’s one thing to try to slow down opponents as they try to enact their vision of society into law. It’s a very different thing to have a vision of one’s own.

And 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.

There are many reasons for this, but let me mention the customary three.

First, while small-government conservatism remains an important faction within the Republican party, it is only a faction. When Republicans held the minority in Congress, the small-government faction could act as an important blocking group against big-government over-reaching—as happened for example with Hillarycare in 1994 or the Carter energy plan in 1978. But when the Republicans won their majority and the small-government faction tried to enact an affirmative agenda, suddenly we discovered that we were not strong enough to enact a program by ourselves—and had instead rendered ourselves vulnerable to blocking action by others. Which is how it happened that the president’s bid for trade promotion authority in 2001 was hijacked by protectionists, and how his hope for Medicare reform ended up leaving behind only the new prescription drug benefit.

Second, I think it’s been fairly established now that the Republican party responds far more attentively to the practical needs of business constituencies than to the abstract principles of free-marketeers. Tom Delay’s “K Street Project” attempted to harness the might of the business lobbying community to Republican goals. It ended instead by subordinating the Republican party to the wishes of the business lobbying community. Which is how it happened that Republicans worked a lot harder to ensure that the prescription drug benefit relieved businesses of the burden of their past prescription drug promises than to protect taxpayers—or why the Republican Senate has been willing to take much greater political risks for immigration amnesty and guest worker programs than it did for Social Security personal accounts.

Third, for the GOP to reinvent itself as a limited-government would require it to repudiate much or maybe close to all of the domestic agenda of the Bush administration. That has happened before: The Reaganites did it to the Nixon/Ford legacy. But that happened only after the greatest political scandal of the 20th century had removed or discredited much of the previous generation of party leadership, and at a time when the country was trending rightward ideologically anyway. Those conditions do not look likely to repeat themselves. Whatever happens in 2006 and 2008, the Bush/Rove operation will retain enormous residual strength – enough certainly to deter credible candidates from running as critics of Bush in the way that Ronald Reagan ran as a critic of Nixon and Ford. And as one surveys the available political talent, one sees that most of the governors and senators who look like plausible presidential material have already committed themselves to some form or another of Bush-style compromise with activist government. And since the country seems to have begun trending leftward in the mid-1990s, it’s hard to count many votes for a Reagan redux even if one were somehow to reappear.

So what does this mean for limited-government conservatives?

Some in the Cato world may welcome the prospect of a small-government third-party insurgency, or even some kind of rapprochement with DLC-style moderate Democrats.

Let’s examine those options in reverse order.

Different kinds of small-government conservatives have different priorities. Some care most about economic liberties, some about lifestyle libertarianism, some about anti-interventionist foreign policies. Small-government conservatives of the latter two varieties may find coalition with Democrats more agreeable than coalition with Republicans. But choosing a different coalition partner does not emancipate you from the pains and difficulties of coalition politics.

As for third parties, more often than not they have proven rapid exit ramps to defeat and obscurity, as Millard Fillmore’s nativists discovered in 1856 and George Wallace’s segregationists in 1968. William Rusher urged Ronald Reagan to run as an independent in 1976—and it’s telling that America’s most politically successful small-government conservative refused even to consider the idea.

So what does that leave?

Two things I’d say.

One is memory.

Small-government conservatism re-emerged as a potent political force in the mid-1970s, a time when the US and the world appeared to be hurtling toward a statist, social-democratic future. We succeeded in halting the plunge and redirecting the US and many of the other western democracies onto a healthier path. That is an accomplishment, and an enduring one: For all the threat we now face from a demographically driven expansion of big government, it is a very different and far less severe threat than the ideologically driven expansion of three decades ago. Sometimes intellectual movements are called to life to save their countries at a time of challenge—and then gradually fade away as their work is done, as the Whigs faded away in the 1850s or the Progressives after the First World War. It may be that the future of conservatism is to recognize that it belongs to the past.

The second possibility is that conservatism will live on as a tendency within both parties rather than as a compact and self-conscious movement in control of one of them. And again the parallel may be with the Whigs and Progressives.

Long after the Whigs went out of business as a party, their ideas and preferences exerted influence on American politics. A Republican President and Congress gave the country the nonpartisan civil service the Whigs had wanted; a Democratic President and Congress restored a central bank in 1913. Progressive ideals of government by experts, scientific management, and government responsibility for the health and welfare of the population have likewise become the common inheritance of both modern parties.

Might not the same be true of the small-government conservative beliefs championed by Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich? It may not be the future we expected for ourselves—but what future is?

Response Essays

The Forecast is Grim — So What Are We Going to Do About It?

Like David, I am very pessimistic about the prospects for conservative/libertarian reform. He is exactly right that demographically-driven federal spending is rising rapidly as the baby boom generation nears retirement, and the best political opportunity for restructuring Social Security and Medicare has passed. As the percentage of voters benefiting from these programs in their current form rises, it is unrealistic to think that spending for them can be reduced except marginally.

David is also right that the Republican Party has become deeply corrupt and appears to lack any leaders with the potential for pushing it back in a more conservative direction. It is going to have to suffer a defeat of Nixonian proportions in order to cleanse the party and create opportunities for new leaders to emerge that may be able to right its course.

From this, David concludes that small government-types should just suck it up, try to slow the rate of growth of spending and do their best to shame the Republicans into behaving more responsibly. He dismisses the prospects for a third party that would embody a more libertarian/conservative philosophy.

In many ways, this is my perspective as well. Because of it, I concluded that conservatives and libertarians need to think seriously about how best to finance the government spending that is in the pipeline. Given the magnitude of that spending growth—on the order of 10 percent of the gross domestic product over the next generation even if no new government programs are enacted or current ones expanded—I have suggested that it is time to think about a value-added tax for the U.S.

The VAT is the most efficient form of taxation ever devised, in the sense that it discourages less economic growth per dollar of revenue raised than any other tax—what economists call the dead-weight cost of taxation. The alternative, I believe, will be to increase tax rates or raise revenue in other ways far more burdensome to the economy and liberty than the equivalent amount of VAT.

This suggestion has been anathema to conservatives and libertarians alike. They view it as surrender to Big Government. Many also believe that a VAT is a “money machine” that will raise revenue so easily it will fuel an even greater increase in spending than would otherwise take place. Some see the inefficiency of alternative revenue-raising options as a virtue—by making the economic cost of taxation as burdensome as possible, it will slow the growth of taxation and spending, they hope.

If government spending were dominated by discretionary programs—those requiring annual appropriations—then I would be more likely to agree. Under such circumstances, the idea that one can “starve the beast” and hold down spending by denying government the revenue that feeds it has some validity. It is supported by the theoretical work of James Buchanan and others. [1]

However, today government spending is totally dominated by interest on the debt that is impossible to cut, entitlements that are almost impossible to cut, and national defense, which is unlikely to be cut for the foreseeable future. This means that more than 80 percent of the budget is effectively off limits. Even if domestic discretionary programs could be cut back to Reagan era levels, it would reduce total federal spending by just 2.4 percent—not nearly enough to offset rising entitlements. To offset the entire projected rise in entitlement spending would require the abolition of virtually every other thing the government does, as documented in numerous studies from the Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office. This may be fine to extreme libertarians, but it hardly constitutes a realistic political strategy for reducing government.

At this point, my friends must think I have totally thrown in the towel on bigger government. This is not so. What I have discussed thus far is simply a forecast of what I see coming. It doesn’t imply anything about my desired outcome. Just because I might predict that a recession is coming, based on my analysis of economic data, it doesn’t mean that I want a recession to happen. And if I predict that a recession will cause the deficit to grow, because recessions automatically raise spending and reduce revenues, it doesn’t mean that I like budget deficits.

In other words, the first thing that libertarian or conservative small government advocates need is a clear-eyed understanding of where we are and where we are going, absent drastic and unlikely changes in law and policy. In my observation, many—even most—tend to be ignorant of the actual fiscal facts and excessively optimistic about what it would take to change current trends. And because many of them hate the federal government and view all those who serve in it as crooks, imbeciles and fools, they tend to know almost nothing about the legislative process or the actual operation of the political system.

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.

Occasionally, a third party effort such as Ross Perot’s in 1992 will tempt the politically alienated small government constituency. But the result of all third party efforts is to undermine the major party closest to it ideologically, often delivering victory to the greater threat from its own point of view. Thus, Ralph Nader’s quixotic campaigns only had the effect of helping George W. Bush—certainly a greater danger from Nader’s perspective on the issues than either Al Gore or John Kerry.

I would add that the net effect of the Libertarian Party over its history has been to drain political activists with a libertarian bent away from the two major parties, thus reducing the ranks of those with such a bent in the major parties and strengthening the hand of the statists. In my opinion, libertarian goals would be much better advanced by abolition of the Libertarian Party and its replacement by an organized libertarian interest group along the lines of the National Rifle Association or the pro and con abortion groups that could mobilize libertarian voters, contributions, and other resources within the existing two-party structure, instead of outside where it is and always will be impotent. The constitutional requirement that a president receive an absolute majority of votes in the Electoral College effectively means that we can never have more than two viable political parties.

Theoretically, a third party could supplant one of the major parties, as the Republicans did with the Whigs. While this sort of thing happens fairly often in other countries such as Canada, it has only happened in the U.S. when one party found itself incapable of dealing with an issue of overriding importance, such as slavery, which is what doomed the Whigs. It is not inconceivable that the ongoing redistribution of income and wealth from relatively poor young people to the relatively wealthy elderly, which will accelerate in coming years, could be the sort of issue that will give rise to a party readjustment like that which saw the Republicans replace the Whigs.

The problem with this theory is that those who must pay for the promised Social Security and Medicare benefits, the youth, are the most politically alienated group in society. Very few of them bother to vote or participate substantively in the political process. This allows politicians to easily ignore them and concentrate instead on the elderly, the age group most likely to vote and the one that is most politically engaged. So until the youth become politically activated and motivated to work for change, it is hard to see where meaningful support for political reform will come from, thus leaving us on the path of least resistance, which is to raise taxes gradually to pay for higher spending programmed in current law.

Another problem is that we all expect to join the ranks of the elderly eventually and thus become the beneficiaries of the government’s largess. Thus young people in France recently revolted against changes in labor law designed to make it easier for young people to get jobs. They preferred the current system, where jobs are very hard to get but almost impossible to lose if you have one. Therefore, one cannot assume that the logical reaction of young people to the unfairness of the current fiscal system will be to overthrow it. They may become even more determined to make sure that they get theirs, too.

I would welcome a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals. Simply damning the existing system and withdrawing from it is just a prescription for accelerating the trend toward bigger government.


[1] Geoffrey Brennan and James M. Buchanan, The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Renewing the Mandate

David Frum makes a persuasive case for conservative pessimism—and indeed, the political picture is in some respects even worse than he suggests. The legacy of the Iraq War and Katrina may well cement the left-wing drift of younger voters, at least in the medium term. Lopsided Democratic majorities among black, Latino, and Asian voters are likely to grow more lopsided still. The same goes for the cities and the inner suburbs, the heart of “the emerging Democratic majority.” While family instability has in a sense been an electoral asset to conservatives—by creating a profound sense of unease among working-class and middle-class voters—one can easily imagine a more energetic left winning these voters with a mix of Clintonian moderation on social issues and promises of economic security. And with the demoralization of the small-government right, reformist energies have shifted to the left, where plans for comprehensive health care reform get an enthusiastic hearing, as the entering wedge of a broader social-democratic revival.

Nevertheless, there is reason for conservative hope as well. History suggests that Opportunity can be a fleeting and vexatious goddess, as Frum would have it— but also that political opportunities can be created as well as seized. Consider the repudiation, a quarter-century ago, of the Nixon-Ford legacy of business-class statism. Was a robust small-government conservatism the inevitable alternative? From the vantage point of the mid-1970s, a push for Swedish-style social democracy was an equally likely candidate—as was a poisonous populism, an American Gaullism married to the divisive racial politics of a George Wallace. (A kinder, gentler version of this ideological brew was recommended to Republicans and Democrats alike in those years.) And yet a combination of vigorous political leadership—from Reagan, of course, but also from many lesser lights—and rigorous intellectual work yielded something very different, namely a new conservative politics based around the American verities of self-reliance and self-government.

This is the kind of work that conservatives can do again—provided that they learn the right lessons from the missed chances and failed hopes of the last ten years. Frum argues that the right’s reversal of fortune began in 1998, when small-government conservatives in Congress abandoned the charge against entitlement spending. His implicit message is that Newt Gingrich had it more or less right—that given the looming fiscal imbalances, a frontal assault on government was vital and necessary, even if it meant taking an approach that was all sticks and no carrots.

But what if Gingrich had it wrong? As Bruce Bartlett points out, slashing government is a fiendishly difficult thing to do—not least because most government programs create their own easily-mobilized constituencies. And Gingrich chose to tackle these constituencies head on, rather than attempting to uncover, or create, alternative constituencies that would have a vested interest in free-market alternatives.

What would such constituencies look like? During the long GOP ascension, from Reagan through the 1994 election, the main small-government constituency was middle and upper-middle class voters whose taxes were too high, and who preferred a government that returned their money, rather than doling it out to favored clients. But eventually the GOP became a victim of its own success: as taxes went down, so did the concerns about over-taxation, and the era of big government being “over” came to an end. The Republican majority has endured into the Bush era thanks to values concerns and foreign policy—neither of which offer a mandate for shrinking government.

What might offer a renewed mandate? The Bush domestic policy has been an epic failure overall, but his administration didn’t get everything wrong. Critics dismiss “compassionate conservatism” as a marketing slogan, designed to woo soccer moms and other squishy suburbanites—a charade that produced one debacle after another, from the ultimately trivial faith-based initiatives to the embarrassing corporate largess of the prescription drug bill. This view is, alas, almost exactly right—not least because there is something un-conservative, and indeed, condescending, about a rhetoric of “compassion.” But Bush’s half-hearted attempts to foster what Jonathan Rauch has termed “demand-side conservatism”—a conservatism that finds ways to reduce the demand for government, rather than going straight for root-canal budget-cutting—suggest a way forward for the Right.

Rather than simply butting heads with the public, Gingrich-style, conservatives need to take a hard look at the factors that keep demand for government high, particularly among the working-class voters who are increasingly central to the conservative coalition—the instability of health care coverage, the stagnation of wages among the non-college educated population, the rising cost of home-ownership and child-rearing. A fulfilling family life is slipping out of reach for more and more Americans, and that in turn erodes the habits of and taste for self-reliance. In such a landscape, simply calling for the rollback of government appeals only to those already in the winner’s circle of American life, those rich in cultural or economic capital. Instead, conservatives should advocate a leaner state that enables, rather than enfeebles, and that appeals to strivers as well as the already successful. They need to accept that government will remain large in the short run—for reasons of entitlement spending alone, as Bartlett points out—while pursuing long-range strategies that will produce a more opportunity-friendly, less statist America.

In tax policy, for instance, across-the-board tax cuts no longer have the appeal they once did, and the conservative hope that a growing “investor class” would provide a major political constituency for further cuts has proven chimerical. But a tax reform targeted to families with children, via tax credits, rebates and even baby bonuses, has the potential to ease the burden on working parents far more than any liberal plan for universal day care. A sweeping market-oriented health care reform that severs health coverage from employment, making it portable from job to job, could have the same effect—while snatching an arrow from the social-democratic quiver. Free-market reforms in secondary and higher education could ease the burdens of paying for an education and dramatically increase social mobility; eliminating government biases that privilege high-tax jurisdictions and discourage telecommuting could drive down the cost of buying a house, raising a family or starting a business.

It’s true that not all of these ideas involve less government, per se—but the small-government movement has always been less about the absolute size of the federal budget and more about the way government spending shapes society, for good or (more often) for ill. So many of today’s conservatives look back and celebrate legislation like the Homestead Act and the GI Bill, even though both increased the federal government’s role in American life—because both also helped move America in a conservative direction, toward an opportunity-oriented, upwardly-mobile “ownership society.” Similarly, the greatest small-government success of the past twenty years, welfare reform, didn’t actually save the government any money—but it was a great conservative reform nonetheless.

Again, both Frum and Bartlett are right—the political climate is inhospitable to plans for shrinking government; the entitlement problem guarantees that federal spending will grow, in one way or another, for years to come; and the right squandered an opportunity, over the course of the last decade, that may not come around again for a long time. But defeats are also opportunities. Today’s small-government conservatives tend to present their ideas as bitter pills, to be swallowed by a reluctant electorate. They need to remember—as Reagan instinctively knew—that theirs isn’t just a language of limits, of discipline and restraint. The small-government movement is a potent force in our politics for a reason: its promise of freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative is deeply-rooted in the American character. By delivering on this promise, conservatives may yet build a lasting majority.

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.

The Conversation

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.

Libertarianism: Not Incoherent

David Frum says there’s not much disagreement, then calls me “hopelessly intellectually incoherent.” I guess I’d disagree with that. He’s right to be skeptical of opinion polls, though I would note that Americans also mostly vote against big government at the real polls. But of course they can only do that in some states, not at the federal level, so that doesn’t help us to constrain the federal government.

More importantly, though, Frum writes that “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.” This is classical liberalism, the philosophy of John Locke and Adam Smith that created the modern world. Liberalism, known these days as libertarianism, may be wrong, but it hardly seems fair to call it hopelessly incoherent.

Let me note first that I didn’t actually mention immigration in my article. And I didn’t mention gay rights or drug legalization, or urge Republicans to take up those banners; I did criticize Republicans for using federal power to override the decisions of the 50 states in the areas of marriage for people in love and marijuana for people in pain. One can believe in federalism without being happy about every exercise of state powers. But let that go; I’ll accept the views Frum attributes to me.

And if I did advocate all those positions in one article, I wouldn’t be proposing to “fuse” limited government and personal freedom; personal freedom is a part of limited government. In the liberal 19th century gay rights were hardly discussed (though the great Thomas Jefferson did try to reduce the penalties for homosexuality). But America prospered with open borders and no drug laws.

And we would again. Freedom works. Limited government works. It made America the richest country in the world, which is why people from all over the world have sought to come here from before 1776 to the present day. As liberalism spread, it brought freedom and prosperity to Europe and other parts of the world as well. Freedom means responsibility as well, a point that David Frum made eloquently in Dead Right. The limited-government agenda has to include a greater insistence on individual responsibility. But virtue and responsibility are better nurtured by freedom than by “statecraft as soulcraft.”

This program is certainly politically difficult, and made more difficult by a Republican government that feeds the public demand for more benefits rather than resisting it. That’s why institutional reforms like term limits and a balanced budget amendment should be part of a strategy for constraining government.

How About “Foredoomed”?

David Boaz takes me to task for my phrase “intellectually incoherent.” Fair enough—and anyway I was not applying the term to him personally. Who in the world is more mentally disciplined than David? I should have said “foredoomed.”

Freedom is More Than Small Government

It’s pretty easy to get depressed about the prospects for freedom given the rather gloomy prospects discussed in these essays. However, I think it is important to remember that freedom encompasses much more than just escaping government’s oppression and intrusion, and growth in government spending and taxation don’t automatically lead to totalitarianism.

I think many conservatives and libertarians look at government’s share of GDP as the basic measure of freedom. Implicitly, if there were no government, we would be 100 percent free, they assume. If government taxing and spending consume one third of GDP, then we are only two-thirds free and so on.

Obviously, there is something to this. But because it is so easy to measure government’s share of the economy, I think we tend to focus too much on it to the exclusion of some other important factors. On the negative side, we tend to understate the importance of government regulation, which is hard to quantify and may impact our lives more significantly than taxation or other governmental actions.

On the positive side, I think we tend to under-appreciate the ways in which technology frees us. The blessings of things like the Internet compensate for an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency elsewhere in society and the economy. To the extent that technology boosts productivity, it makes more bearable the burden of government.

Another thing we tend to forget is the great benefit of the wealth that almost all Americans have today. Not that many years ago, people had to spend an enormous percentage of their waking hours simply to acquiring and preparing food. Now even among poor households, obtaining adequate food is a minor concern. Indeed, obesity is a far bigger problem among the poor than malnutrition.

Because of this, burdens that might have been unbearable in the past can actually be borne with relative ease today. Consider taxation. If much of society is barely able to produce enough to sustain life, then even the smallest tax can be extremely painful. That’s the main reason why tax burdens before the 20th century were minuscule everywhere—there was simply nothing to tax. Wealth, incomes, output and productivity were too low.

Now that the cost of basics—water, food, clothing and shelter—have fallen dramatically from just a few generations ago, people can afford to pay more taxes without suffering the deprivations that similar burdens would have imposed in the past. And they get more back for their tax dollars. At the federal level, the vast majority of people will get back every dollar they paid in Social Security taxes plus interest. And although the cost of Medicare is rising, at least it involves a service that almost everyone will eventually benefit from.

This brings me to an unappreciated point about how Social Security and Medicare relate to freedom. Conservatives and libertarians tend to look at these programs solely in terms of the way they diminish freedom—taking away freedom of choice in terms of pensions and medical care in old age. But before these programs came along, care for the aged imposed an enormous and personal burden on families. Children were expected to take in their aged parents, care for them and provide them with food and medicine out of their own pockets. It’s a tremendous blessing for families to not have to worry so much about their parents, which has increased their freedom to live their own lives in ways that can only be appreciated by those who, for whatever reason, have to take care of a frail, ailing parent in old age.

At the same time, advanced health care and nutrition have vastly increased freedom in old age. Not only do people live much longer today, but they are in far better condition and better able to enjoy life well past age 65. Those who would otherwise be crippled now have mobility, the formerly deaf can now hear, and drugs now cure diseases that killed millions in the prime of life. All of this adds immeasurably to freedom and tends to be overlooked by those who dwell exclusively on the relationship between people and government as its sole determinant.

Finally, I would just add that freedom is defined not only by the relationship between citizens and government, but also in private and business relationships as well. For example, not too long ago it was extremely difficult to get a simple divorce. Now it’s very easy. And many women were trapped in loveless marriages simply because they had no other option in a world in which job opportunities for them were extremely limited. There were also deep societal stigmas attached to things like having a child out of wedlock. Today, of course, women are thoroughly integrated in the labor force and options for single women, whether divorced or never married, are as broad as they are for men, including those who choose to have children without the benefit of a husband.

Other groups in society have also seen a vast increase in their freedom over the past couple of generations. Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities have improved their position in society astonishingly just compared to their position when I was a child. For the most part, homosexuals, atheists and other groups historically discriminated against are now free for the most part to live their lives openly without having to hide their nature or beliefs to avoid persecution. Of course, more needs to be done. But we shouldn’t dismiss the fact that enormous progress has been made to increase freedom for millions who had very little within recent memory.

My purpose is not to defend government or say that taxes don’t matter for freedom. My point simply is to suggest that there tends to be a myopia among conservatives and libertarians that is quick to condemn governmental curtailments of individual liberty, while failing to appreciate or even acknowledge expansions of personal freedom and many other things that have enormously improved our lives over those of our parents and grandparents, not to mention those in the distant past.

Perhaps we are moving toward European levels of taxation and spending. While I would prefer not to live that way, I certainly don’t view those in Scandinavia, where the level of government is twice what it is here, as twice as close to slavery as we are. In other words, it’s not the end of the world even if the most pessimistic projections about rising taxation and spending are true. We can still live in a society that is only a little less free than the one we have today even if freedom is not expanded in other ways, such as through technology.

In short, it may be too easy to be pessimistic about the future of freedom by focusing only on the political. Looking at freedom more broadly shows enormous and underappreciated progress that is likely to continue even if the tax/GDP ratio rises sharply in the future.

The Future of Fusionism

One question that we’ve all danced around a bit is whether the old “fusionist” project, wedding cultural conservatives to libertarians, makes sense any more. As a social conservative weary of unfulfilled and unfulfillable boasts about how we’re going to “drown the federal government in the bathtub,” I’m occasionally inclined to say no—as are a lot of people these days, from the crunchy-con critics of capitalism to the lifestyle-libertarian opponents of the religious right.

Ultimately, though, I think the marriage still makes too much political sense to be broken up. Libertarians—at least libertarians who care more about the size of the federal leviathan than about, say, gay marriage—can’t ditch social conservatives, because without social conservatives (and particularly evangelical Christians) there wouldn’t be any significant constituency for small government reform in America. By and large, the Americans most interested in, say, school choice or social security privatization, or what-have-you are also the people lining up to oppose abortion and gay marriage. The upper-middle-class voters the GOP has been losing to the Democrats over social issues aren’t natural libertarians; if they voted for Reagan, they did so because he promised to cut their taxes, not because they had any interest in hacking away at entitlement spending. The notion—advanced by Andrew Sullivan, among others—of a socially liberal, budget-cutting, hawkish third way is pretty much just a fantasy.

At the same time, small-government libertarians can’t ditch social conservatives because it’s precisely their emphasis on values, churches, and families—however authoritarian it can sometimes seem—that make libertarianism possible at all. Boaz writes that “the limited-government agenda has to include a greater insistence on individual responsibility”—and where is this going to come from if not from social conservatives? By the same token, social conservatives can’t ditch libertarians because of the lesson of Europe—which is that if you set out to create a socially-conservative big government, you’ll destroy the very incentives that make faith and family thrive in the first place. (Also, libertarians are “wicked smaht”—much smarter than your average social-con—and useful to have around in an intellectual knife fight.)

All of which is to say that the underlying realities that Frum limned in Dead Right, over a decade ago, haven’t changed that much. These are tough times for the conservative alliance, and it’s to be expected that social-cons would blame libertarians for the Right’s difficulties, and vice versa. But like it or not, we’re stuck with each other.

Voters Will Defend Economic Security Against Painful Reforms

At the risk of sounding simple-minded, I’d like to advance a proposition that will strike most readers as blindingly obvious—a political movement that doesn’t solve or at least alleviate the problems we encounter in daily life will fail. This is why Bruce Bartlett’s broader understanding of freedom is so crucial. Those benighted Europeans, suffering under an overweening welfare state, is in fact feel pretty free, and often enough pretty affluent. Reform has thus proven difficult if not impossible. Even an Angela Merkel, so committed to a sweeping program of market liberalization as recently as a few months ago, has surrendered to the stultifying consensus.

And if we take a moment to look beyond comforting abstractions, it’s easy to see why. Your average middle-class European is constrained in many ways a middle-class American is not, but chances are she’s not afraid of seeing her child catch a flu because she happens to be between jobs. Simply put, you can’t take something away without giving something else in return. Root-canal reforms that sharply reduce economic security will be resisted unless you can make the compelling case that there is some compensating benefit, a light at the end of the tunnel.

That, unfortunately, is exactly what President Bush failed to understand in his ill-conceived effort to revamp Social Security.

Embracing an incremental reform like Early Retirement Accounts would have built a constituency for reform over time while also encouraging workers to delay retirement, killing at least two birds with one stone. The same goes for the creation of Swedish-style notional accounts. Best of all would have been a measure that replaced the job-killing payroll tax with a consumption tax that hit the affluent (including affluent retirees) hardest. Instead, President Bush promised … well, he promised more risk and benefit cuts, right when anxiety over the death of corporate pensions was at its peak. A diabolical scheme to discredit entitlement reform couldn’t have been more brilliantly executed.

Or take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s effort to check the power of public sector unions through a measured, poll-tested set of centrist reforms. Why did it meet so ignominious a defeat? In the end, the protections of public sector workers were seen as the only way for middle-class families to thrive in California’s high-cost cities and suburbs. Instead of tackling the root causes, the spiraling costs of housing and health care, many voters felt Schwarzenegger was going after the little guy.

To understand the future of American politics, you need only look at the alarming number of American families who’ve gone bankrupt thanks to a temporary lack of medical insurance, or for that matter inadequate insurance coverage. We could very well conclude that the adults in question were imprudent, and thus deserve their fate. But most Americans—me included—see them as victims of a chaotic, dysfunctional system, a system that, incidentally, bears no resemblance to a functioning marketplace. Our broken borders are indeed a source of anger and frustration among rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats, but the health care crisis overshadows immigration by a mile, and will continue to do so until a real solution is at hand. Given time, the majority of voters who see the status quo as unacceptable, on economic and on moral grounds, will press for action. By default, that will mean moving towards a far larger, far more intrusive role for the federal government in providing medical care. Jacob Hacker’s ingenious Medicare Plus proposal represents one possible future, in which a very large share of the middle class becomes more or less satisfied clients of the social services bureaucracy.

Is this the only alternative? Of course not. One can easily imagine a market-oriented reform that goes far beyond Mitt Romney’s innovative proposal to offer more choice, more transparency, and more quality.

Because the health sector is such a large and fast-growing sector, thanks in large part to rising affluence, you can rest assured that the effects of a comprehensive overhaul would ripple through the economy. Employers, for one, will be very pleased, the tremendous burden of maintaining a welfare state in miniature having been removed, a step that might even prove a spur to job creation. It would certainly be a spur to social mobility. There’s only one problem. Any effective reform—including a market-oriented reform—would mean spending more money than we currently spend. Not much more, particularly if—as David Frum suggests—we factor in the enormous tax subsidies we now channel to the very rich, but certainly more. That means expanding government’s visible share of GDP, at least in the short term.

The same goes for a number of proposals that would, taken together, decisively shift the political balance from the partisans of social democracy (who are growing stronger by the day) to the partisans of economic freedom (who are fading fast). A real ownership society that includes all citizens requires, whether we like it or not, a measure of redistribution. Do conservatives have “the nerve to propose real redistribution,” as Newt Gingrich himself memorably put it? That is an open question. To insist that President Bush’s real problem is “spending like a drunken sailor” when tax revenues have collapsed and government spending is, as liberal budget hawk Jonathan Chait has observed, lower than it ever was between 1975 and 1996 is just silly.

It’s not the spending. It’s the opportunism, the lack of a vision.

Were we headed in the direction of more freedom, as we were during the variously tax-cutting, tax-hiking Reagan years, perturbations in government’s share of GDP would matter very little.

I’ve already gone on long enough. When I return, I’d like to question the notion that government can’t do much about the instability of family life. For now, let me just say that there is quite a lot government can do, first and foremost by not making matters worse.

Future of the GOP: It’s Up to the Democrats

Ross’ question about the future of “fusionism”—the longstanding alliance between libertarians and social conservatives—is a very profound one. Let me suggest a couple of thoughts that may help us think it through together.

  1. While strict doctrinal libertarians have always been a vanishingly small minority in America (cocaine vending machines anyone?), the libertarian disposition or tendency is large and strong.
  2. So long as the Democrats (or anyway the Democrats’ northern leadership) remained effectively a social-democratic party, libertarian-leaning voters had no choice but to support the GOP.
  3. After 1994, Bill Clinton shifted the Dems sharply toward the right on economic issues. The result—as we saw in the 1998-2004 sequence of elections—was that the Dems shed a lot of working-class white votes, while picking up a lot of affluent votes. (Bush beat Kerry among white women without a high school degree; Gore beat Bush among self-described “upper class” voters.)
  4. Probably the most important decision therefore for the future of the Republican party belongs not to the GOP, but to the Democrats: Do the Dems continue on the path Clinton laid down—or do they revert to a more radical politics?
  5. As of 2005, the Democrats have compromised. They practice a politics that is radical and militant in tone, but anodyne in substance. They hate George W. Bush, and the war in Iraq, and the religious right—but it’s rare to hear them say implement the Kyoto accord or raise taxes to pay for universal government-run healthcare. I’m not saying they don’t think it, but they don’t say it.
  6. But the Democrats are quiet mainly because they have sunk deep into the mentality of an opposition party. If they retake one or both houses of Congress—as they gear up for 2008—then they will have to decide: Are they still Clinton’s party? If yes, then I think the Republican coalition will continue to splinter. If no, then for all the troubles described here, the GOP can be held together by the principle of lesser-evilism.

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.

The Democrats and Small Government

I agree with David Frum that the future of the GOP majority depends, in part, on what the Democrats do—but I think it’s worth distinguishing between what Bill Clinton did, in 1996 and ‘98, and what the Democrats have failed to do ever since. Clinton moved the party to the right on economics, as David says, by embracing free trade and balanced budgets, but he also moved to the right on social issues—avoiding first-term debacles like gays-in-the-military and Jocelyn Elders, signing welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act, and embracing small-bore initiatives like school uniforms and the V-chip. This two-step enabled him to make inroads among affluent, socially-liberal voters, while also recapturing a chunk of the more socially-conservative “Reagan Democrats” and Bubba voters. Since then, however—and particularly in the post-9/11 era—the Democrats haven’t been able to find candidates who can make this two-step seem plausible, and so they’ve done a one-step instead, making further inroads among well-off social liberals while losing the white working-class voters who cast their ballots for Clinton.

If that change—if a Mark Warner figure emerges, say, who can articulate the “tough-on-terror/socially-moderate/fiscally-responsible” line more believably than Dean or Kerry or Pelosi —then I agree with David that the GOP coalition will be in a lot of trouble. But it will be in trouble because the Democrats will have managed to steal working-class “big-government” conservatives, not small-government conservatives, away from the Republican Party—by promising economic protectionism, perhaps, wedded to hawkish competence in foreign policy, and slightly less hostility to religion and traditional values at home. And it’s hard for me to see what such a Democratic Party will have to offer libertarians that it doesn’t offer already—beyond, perhaps, a brake on the expansion of executive power that’s taken place in the Bush era. (Though frankly, I think if a Democrat wants to win in ‘08, he or she will have to come out for wiretapping at some point during the campaign.) If you’re a libertarian who cares more about social issues than fiscal issues, then you should have been voting for Democrats for a while now; if you’re the reverse, there’s no way the Democrats are ever going to be a good choice. Divided government, maybe, is a way to rein in spending. But as long as the Democrats are the party of unions, minorities, big-government working-class voters, and converted Rockefeller Republicans (who are not, and never have been, in favor of small government, from John Lindsay down to Olympia Snowe) they will never offer a plausible home to anyone who cares about reducing the size of the federal budget.

With this in mind, I would also suggest that David Boaz’s fear—“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”— misses the real point of the last six years, which is that economic conservatives and social conservatives have both been marginalized by business-class conservatism, which cares about neither abortion nor the free market, and is mainly interested in using the power of the purse to dole out corporate welfare. I understand that libertarians are annoyed by some of the Bush Administration’s symbolic gestures to the Christian Right—the Terri Schiavo intervention, say, or the Federal Marriage Initiative. But symbolism aside, social conservatives aren’t getting a markedly better deal from the GOP these days than small-government conservatives (how much money was spent on faith-based initiatives, compared to the Medicare prescription drug bill?), and both groups are getting shafted in favor of K Street conservatism. The Cato Institute and the Christian Coalition are never going to see eye to eye on everything, but they still have a lot of common ground —and a common enemy.

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.