In simpler times, the phrase “big-government conservatism” was considered an oxymoron. Today, it is the subject of heated debate as well as an increasing number of books. The latest and perhaps most policy-focused of these titles is Leviathan on the Right: How Big Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution, written by Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute.
#ad#Tanner gets right to the point. He opens the first chapter by listing several liberal-sounding proposals to grow the federal government, ranging from a new Cabinet-level Department of Families to a requirement that all Americans must purchase health insurance, that were actually floated by Republicans. He chastises President Bush for being “the first Republican since Eisenhower to run for president without calling for cutting or abolishing a single federal program.” And he itemizes the Bush administration’s offenses against limited government, from the Medicare prescription-drug benefit to the expansion of Bill Clinton’s national-service program — all by page four.
Even the cover illustration is intended to drive home the point that the current administration’s domestic policies have been a radical departure from the Right’s principles and traditions. Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater are seen fading into the background while a shifty George W. Bush looks in the opposite direction.
Most of Tanner’s complaints could be echoed by longtime Bush supporters. The creation of the biggest new entitlement program since the 1960s; the price tag and reach of No Child Left Behind; the substantial increases in real domestic discretionary spending; and the Republicans’ embrace of pork-barrel politics — all of these Bush-era innovations have many more conservative critics than defenders.
Yet Tanner nevertheless holds large segments of the Right responsible for this sad state of affairs. While many critics of big-government conservatism blame the neoconservatives, the religious Right, or the most spending cut-averse of the supply-siders, Tanner blames them all along with much smaller groups like Gingrichian technophiles and David Brooks-style national-greatness conservatives.
Ironically, the author is at his best when he does to the big-government conservatives what the first neoconservatives did to the Great Society liberals: He questions the assumptions behind their pet programs and assembles data suggesting they won’t work. Tanner emphasizes flaws in both federal marriage-promotion efforts and the KidSave accounts; he also points out the myriad differences between requiring drivers to purchase automobile insurance and the individual mandate for health insurance.
Big-government conservatism appears to be failing on its own terms. Instead of increasing spending in the short term to reduce dependency in the long term, enrollment in 25 major federal programs from Medicaid to food stamps is up nearly 20 percent since 2000, a rise not entirely attributable to population growth or the poverty rate. While the prescription-drug benefit has so far proved somewhat less expensive than early estimates, it still worsens Medicare’s financial picture while offering few compensating market-based reforms. The same is true of No Child Left Behind, which boosted spending and the federal government’s role in education without offering vouchers or significant parental choice.
In other words, there has been plenty of big government but much less conservatism.
Critics could charge with some justice that Tanner idealizes the past to make Bush’s fiscal record look comparatively worse than it is. After all, Goldwater never got close to the White House and Republicans have only launched sustained frontal assaults on the size of government three times since World War II — the Truman-era “Do Nothing Congress,” the first two years of the Reagan administration, and the first two years of the Gingrich Congress. Bush has cut taxes, promoted health savings accounts, and at least tried to advance a Social Security reform that would have more than made up for the explosion of earmarks. And even Reagan disappointed small-government types.
But these critics should be careful: Reagan’s failures on spending nearly jeopardized many of his successes, especially on taxes. Similarly, by allowing domestic spending to grow while paying for a war on terror, Bush risks his tax cuts and makes free-market entitlement reform more difficult.
Where Leviathan on the Right fails is by ignoring the political context in which big-government conservatism developed. Tanner, like many libertarian-leaning authors before him, assumes that the voters would embrace cuts in government if the Republicans were simply principled enough to enact them. The poll numbers he cites where Americans say so in the abstract are thin evidence for this proposition. Just because some voters were turned off by the GOP’s fiscal profligacy doesn’t mean they would have welcomed cuts in, say, Medicare.
If big-government conservatism is as widespread as the author assumes, it may be because many on the Right have come to doubt that libertarian means are the best way to secure traditionalist ends. The 1990s welfare-reform debate joined conservatives who wanted to encourage work and reduce out-of-wedlock births with those who wished to shrink the welfare state. A similar coalition is essential for making small-government conservatism viable again.
Tanner does a good job arguing that big government will fail conservatives, but doesn’t go far enough in making the positive case for anti-statism to constituencies like the religious right. Good policies can’t be implemented without smart politics.
For a diagnosis of what ails the Right, this book is a good place to start. For a cure, look elsewhere.
– W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.