Conservatives should aspire to reduce the size and cost of the state. However, on both sides of the Atlantic, conservative legislators are as busy promoting new legislation as are their social democratic and Democratic opponents. Yet after a century and a half of legislative frenzy, what can be left that needs or justifies more?
One reason for all this legislation is the rise of the professional politician and the belief, particularly in the U.K., that every member of the legislature needs to be hyperactive. Too many conservatives think all that is required is to legislate differently from their opponents, often about the same issues.
Lord Salisbury, the U.K.’s last true conservative prime minister (who stepped down from that position in 1902), deplored unnecessary activism. Andrew Roberts, his biographer, quotes him as saying, “the most difficult and most salutary thing for Parliament to do” is often “to do nothing.” Today’s conservatives should follow that prescription and avoid legislation, except as a last resort, because it is the greatest source of extension of the state.
They should also remember that reducing the size of government is not merely an exercise in the reduction of public expenditure; it is a moral imperative that distinguishes them from their opponents. Below, therefore, are some reminders to conservatives why they should avoid legislating, as a contribution to restraining any further growth of the state and defending liberty:
• Remember, skepticism is the supreme conservative virtue, so be distrustful of proposals for new legislation and adopt the default position of dismissing them out of hand.
• Question the evidence given for any proposal and whether the alleged “ill” it seeks to rectify is a real problem at all and whether it is actually susceptible to legislative or regulatory action — or whether it is just the human condition or is proportionately so insignificant that it does not justify action. Recently a U.K. newspaper headline highlighted a group of mighty bien-pensants who argued that since 52 people per year were going to have themselves killed at clinics in Switzerland, the U.K. should change its laws on killing to allow us to slaughter the elderly and infirm at home. The sad fact is that this will very likely be adopted in the next five years, almost certainly with Conservative Party support.
• Consider the source of any proposal — almost invariably it will be a self-interested lobby, either for a minority cause or for a sectoral interest — and whether what is proposed is even practicable. Recent proposals to limit freedom of the press in the U.K., largely at the behest of Hugh Grant, the foppish thespian, turned out, mercifully, to be unworkable, but the intent still remains a threat, requiring conservatives’ vigilance,
• The bigger the industry/organized labor union/non-governmental organization/quango, the more likely it will be to seek regulation in restraint of trade, to limit competition and disadvantage small and start up organizations by imposing additional regulatory costs, or to impose limitations on individual liberty. The European Union is a dreadful example of this. Major industries maintain huge lobbies in Brussels to promote anti-competitive regulation (European Standards), which, in turn, feeds the regulatory aspirations of the EU bureaucracy and hobbles small businesses across Europe.
• Consider at great length, preferably over several years, all possible alternatives to legislation, even if it is finally demonstrated that there is a problem to be addressed. Would prayer or a cold shower work better?
• If legislation is found to be justified or unavoidable, proceed slowly and, above all, ensure that it can be clearly and unambiguously drafted and enforced without creating unintended consequences or establishing regulatory bodies that provide work within a growing bureaucracy for those who proposed the legislation.
• If the latter appears to be the inevitable outcome, then reflect long and hard again on whether the resulting cost and self-interested activism creates a greater ill than the original problem. Remember, once created, all agencies look for further work to swell their influence and payroll.
• Always insert a sunset clause in any legislation or regulation so that, periodically, a positive reaffirmation of its value and the retention of any consequent bureaucracy has to be sought.
• Listen carefully to anyone proposing the abolition of existing government agencies. These will be rare birds, and often their voices will be drowned by the clamor of those demanding more.
• More radically, conservatives should promote the drastic reduction in the length of legislative sessions. A couple of months every two years should suffice, concentrating on a program of repeals and budget reduction. This would not restrict, and could even improve, the functioning of legislative scrutiny committees to hold the Executive to account.
• Stop paying legislators; it only encourages them. We were much better governed when gentlemen of private means — whether from Virginia or from Hatfield — acted in the national interest.
So, as a new Congress has just assembled and a new Parliament can be expected in May, here are some modest proposals to remind conservatives how to be conservative, if they even still recognize the term.
— Roger Humber is a lobbyist and Conservative commentator, formerly CEO of the major house-building representative body in the U.K.