Politics & Policy

Government Makes a Comeback?

A rational balance.

Rcently I contributed a piece to the ten-year anniversary issue of Worth magazine. The theme was “the 100 people who changed the way we think about money,” or something like that. I wrote about George W. Bush. Writing well before the World Trade Center attack, I said that President Bush’s biggest impact on the way we think about money was a preventative one. By giving the surplus back to its rightful owners, Bush had closed off all sorts of debates before they even got started. Tired of ideological bickering, the American people pretty much respond only to pragmatic arguments. Big Government vs. Limited Government is a debate that excites a few of us, but the average Joe couldn’t care less. But tell the American people “We can’t afford it” or “We don’t have the money,” and they respond. So giving back that Jupiter-sized pimp roll of cash preempted all sorts of fights about universal health care, free puppies, whatever.

After the attack on the World Trade Center, I got a couple of e-mails from people furious that I could have written anything even moderately complimentary of “starving” the government, when so many brave government workers — firemen, police, FEMA officials — were risking their lives.

For reasons that are entirely beyond me, they thought I was in favor of a “cut their pay and send them home” policy for emergency workers.

I bring this up because it seems these folks aren’t alone. As the pundits constantly remind us, most of the political “losers” in the wake of September 11 are on the left side of the aisle. Pacifists; lefty intellectuals; America-haters; activists dedicated to reparations, free health care, freeing Mumia; and urban fern farmers who listen to NPR all day are all moping like big dogs who’ve had their food bowls moved, because patriotism is on the rise and all other issues are on the back burner. But there is one group on the right which, it’s claimed, has also been hurt by all of this: “anti-government” folks.

Tom Friedman is typical. In yesterday’s New York Times he wrote: “President Bush denigrated Washington during his campaign and repeated the selfish mantra about the surplus that ‘it’s your money — not the government’s money.’ How thankful we are today that we have a Washington, D.C., with its strong institutions — FEMA, the F.A.A., the F.B.I. and armed forces — not to mention a surplus to help manage our way out of this crisis.”

A week ago, Jim Hoagland wrote in a column in the Washington Post: “Ideologues on the right saw government as an evil to be rolled back. Civil libertarians fought to curb the state’s powers, and Third Way centrists felt government should be made obedient to market forces.” Now, Hoagland contends, that’s all over. Or it might be.

Of course, on a political calculus, anti-government guys are having a rough time. Some isolationists and hardcore libertarians may score a few points by arguing how this wouldn’t have happened if we’d followed George Washington’s advice about entangling alliances. But it’s a net loss for them — the paleoconservatives especially — because Americans believe we have to be assertive internationally, if only in order to bomb the Taliban forward into the Stone Age.

Also, regardless of the merits of their theoretical arguments, the reality is that free-market libertarians will have a very hard time arguing that deregulation of the airlines — and airline security — was or would be a good thing. I don’t know if the government should take over all security everywhere, but if they don’t, it seems like a no-brainer that government will still have to intervene with much tighter regulations. This is so if for no other reason than the fact that consumers won’t trust airplanes if the government doesn’t sign off on their safety.

All that aside, I’m still at a loss as to how the events of September 11 and our response to it undermine the conservative case for limited government. Conservatives, broadly speaking, never argued for the abolition of the FBI. We may have pointed out in the past that FEMA is a corrupt, inefficient sewer for patronage. But few conservatives I know of have argued that the federal government shouldn’t help with disasters. Friedman writes, “How thankful we are today that we have a Washington, D.C.…” as if, had September 11 never happened, the GOP’s plan to turn D.C. into an oil refinery would have proceeded apace.

Apparently, some people need reminding: Conservatives believe in a strong military, which is why candidate Bush campaigned on strengthening the armed forces. Conservatives believe in police and firemen and a well-funded defense infrastructure. They don’t support a federal takeover of — or excessive meddling with — local schools, hospitals, milk prices, museums, or nativity scenes.

You could much more easily argue that this disaster was caused by having too much government. Not too little. If you’re “multitasking” while driving your car, and then you crash into a tree, nobody in their right mind would say “this only reinforces the need to allow drivers to use cappuccino makers and microwave ovens in their cars.”

There have been numerous reports, with more sure to come, that America’s political leadership had ample warning about the dangers of terrorist attacks. It only makes sense that all of the stupid things the United States government — and particularly Congress — puts a high priority on, from the Northeast Dairy Compact to hate-crimes legislation to bilingual education, would distract our leadership from the core mission delineated in the U.S. constitution.

And, of course, there’s Bill Clinton. He even bragged about his ability to do 100 things at once. Hell, he multitasked Monica Lewinsky senseless. But, as Andrew Sullivan has been cataloging so ably, Bill’s juggling act is one of the reasons we’re pulling bodies out of the rubble.

Sure, I’m glad that FEMA, the FBI, and the FDNY exist — but as a conservative, I never really wanted them to go anywhere. I would, however, like to see these “strong institutions” as Friedman puts it, made stronger by being given both the money they need and the undivided attention of the government. The libertarians are right when they say that war fuels big government. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When soldiers go into battle, they carry only what they need, and jettison everything else. Wouldn’t it be nice if the federal government did the same thing?


As many of you have heard, NRO has dropped Ann Coulter’s column. If you’d like to hear our side of the story, click here. In happier news, we are excited to announce that The Weekly Standard has joined the online game. Rather than that Bulgarian kiosk of a website they used to run, the Standard now has a flashy daily deal up and running, under the leadership of Jonathan Last. Even if we weren’t fans of The Standard, we’d welcome them into the ones-and-zeros game because we are free-market types. As such, we believe that competition is always good. Indeed, at minimum, having competitors is good evidence that other folks think you’re smart to be in the business you’re in. If you’re the only distributor of yak urine, the lack of competitors might be telling you something you couldn’t figure out for yourself.

Also, you’ll notice they have cool caricatures of their writers. We tried this, but we have too many contributors to pull it off. Still, in the spirit of competition we’re pondering some improvements along those lines. We’ve just hired a French mime who will “act out” his impersonation of each NRO writer, and we will run the clip of him gesticulating, for example, “Michael Ledeen” in real time alongside the column. That is, if Chris McEvoy can conquer some of the technical problems, including the fact that we can’t get Jean-Luc to come out from under Chris’s desk. Apparently the mime thought Jay Nordlinger’s name sounded German, and he had a panic attack. Anyway, glad to have you guys in the game, and best of luck!


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