The Corner

Anti-Waste Ain’t Anti-Big Gov’t

A reader responds to my USA Today piece :

Dear Mr. Goldberg:

I enjoyed your article “the real Conservative” in today’s paper. I doubt, however, the truth of the following statement:

“Coming up behind Giuliani are McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom champion, on domestic policy, their competence at running government, not their conviction to trim it back.”

It is at best a half-truth. When Romney talks of government, he almost always connects it to “waste” (e.g. “There is too much waste in Washington”). Waste is obviously a loaded word. No one wants it. It has to be trimmed off, cut back. He also regularly touts his experience in balancing a budget in MA, and we all know how he did that: by cutting back programs and state employees. Once again the implication is that he will do that in Washington.

So, I think you need to give Romney more credit. If it is a lean government you want, acknowledge what Romney did in MA.

Me: I’m not trying to single out Romney, but this email gives me a good opportunity to make a point too few people make. Just because you want to get rid of “waste” or make government more “efficient” doesn’t mean you’re against big government. Al Gore, for example, led the Reinventing Government schtick under Clinton. It was a useful enterprise at the end of the day, cutting out some red tape and redundancy. But it hardly qualifies Al Gore as a champion of limited government, now does it? I’ve heard Romney speak a few times now, and his budget balancing talk is all fine and good. But philosophically, he gives little indication that he’s got a problem with big government properly understood.

What is that proper understanding? Well, it’s not simply a budgetary one. For example, lots of liberals like to say conservatives are full of it when we complain about the size of government since government as a share of GDP is smaller today than it was at some point in the past. This misses the point that government need not spend large amounts of tax dollars to be big (or be too expensive). Big government refers to regulations, laws and other frameworks that constrain liberty. Yes, of course, it also refers to taxes and spending. Tax Freedom Day is April 30 this year, which means you’ve got almost a month left to work for the State. But government can live within its means, even run surpluses, and be way, way, too big. Campaign finance laws are quintessential big government laws in my book and, as far as I know, they don’t affect the budget significantly at all.

Let me put it this way: Assume Sweden runs it’s government efficiently, without much waste, fraud or abuse. That doesn’t mean one could get away with saying the Swedes believe in limited government.

The reader’s objection, while well intended, is a sign of how we look to the wrong yardsticks to measure government’s role in our life. This in itself is byproduct of Progressivism, as I’ve argued before.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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