Politics & Policy

The Conservative Fight over the Size of Government

Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) arrives at a luncheon on Capitol Hill, September 23, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
There’s more than meets the eye to the debate on the right about Mitt Romney’s childcare plan.

Debates about a universal child allowance aren’t usually the occasion for a war of words among politicians, commentators, and opinion writers. Yet that’s precisely what happened when Senator Mitt Romney proposed legislation in early February that would involve the U.S. government sending all but America’s wealthiest families $250 a month per child between six and 17 years old, and $350 a month for each child under the age of five.

Many social conservatives applauded the idea. Finally, they said, a senior Republican was taking seriously their concerns about Middle America’s economic struggles and doing something about it.

Fiscal conservatives tended to be less enthusiastic. While noting that Romney’s proposal would be partly funded by eliminating the child tax credit and reforming the earned-income tax credit, they maintained we need less government spending on entitlements, not more.

Things escalated from there. But the significance of the back-and-forth between these social and fiscal conservatives goes beyond the specifics of Romney’s proposition. Fiscal and social conservatives have always had their disagreements, even when they have formed alliances of convenience. Even those who consider themselves both fiscally and socially conservative recognize an occasional tension between the two. The eruption of words, however, over a proposal that would result in a net expenditure increase of $66 billion a year (which, by federal spending standards, is small change) reflects something else: a widening chasm on the right that, I suspect, is going to deepen.

In part, this is because both social and fiscal conservatives see a crisis enveloping America. They disagree, however, about what the crisis is. Again, the two tendencies can overlap, even within the same person. But real fissures have begun to emerge over what crisis is most important.

Social conservatives are most worried that American families are under siege from, they believe, growing financial pressures that have been magnified by COVID. They also regard the political Left as, at best, indifferent, if not actively hostile, to the traditional family. The least that the Right should do, in their view, is to relieve some of the economic stress on families in direct rather than roundabout ways.

Many fiscal conservatives are most worried about a different crisis: out-of-control federal government spending and gross fiscal irresponsibility, increasingly paid for by recourse to debt. The federal deficit, they note, is already set to grow by about $1 trillion a year for the foreseeable future. With welfare and entitlements already making up the bulk of federal expenditures, fiscal sanity requires the Right to get behind cutting government spending — not growing it.

This isn’t merely a green-eyeshades dispute, however. At a deeper level, this argument reflects another fight on the right that is increasingly breaking out into the open. This dispute concerns the state’s role in the economy.

Growing numbers of social conservatives are willing to consider using the U.S. government to shape the direction of economic life in ways that parallel the ambitions of the Left. Many of their proposals dwarf what Romney is offering. Some of them have, for instance, advocated the adoption of something akin to “the activist state of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.” The sheer scale of the multiple challenges facing America, in their view, warrants this, especially the economic and political threat to America’s position in the world that China represents.

All of this is anathema to fiscal conservatives. They insist that efforts like the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society failed to achieve their goals and facilitated considerable social dysfunction among already vulnerable people that still afflicts those groups today. Moreover, they point out, many of those initiatives remain in place despite the documented failures. Who, they add, will pay for these new programs? And what will be the price in terms of economic and other freedoms? Will the programs even work the way they are intended?

Again, there are many Americans who hold both socially and fiscally conservative views. They are just as concerned about what is happening to many American families and appalled by the Left’s social engineering as they are by levels of federal spending, the use of public debt to avoid making hard but necessary choices, and the relentless attempts to expand government’s reach into the economy. Now, however, they find themselves pressured from social and fiscal conservatives to pick a side. Are you committed to free markets or not? Do you want to help American families or not?

How this conflict between fiscal and social conservatives will play out is anyone’s guess. What I do know is that there are no key-turn solutions for bridging the gap, and that efforts to simply clone past syntheses of social and fiscal conservatism don’t take into account just how much America has changed since Ronald Reagan was elected president.

One thing is sure. Until it is resolved, there will only be one winner from this civil war on the right. And that is the political Left.

Samuel Gregg is a Visiting Scholar at the Feulner Institute at The Heritage Foundation and Research Director at the Acton Institute.

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