The Corner

Big-Government Conservatism

Jonathan Chait argues that it is conducive to corruption. Small-government conservatives tend to think that big government, whether liberal or conservative, is more prone to corruption than the small-government kind, and will therefore not reject Chait’s general argument. Some of the specifics, on the other hand, seem to me dubious.

Chait attributes to me the view that Bush’s support for big government is largely a response to the public demand for government–which is indeed a rough approximation of my views. He then argues that it’s an inadequate explanation, because it doesn’t explain why spending has grown faster under Bush than it did under Clinton. It seems to me that there are several possible explanations for this difference that are compatible with my view.

The most obvious one, with which I’m sure Chait is familiar, is that the replacement of divided government by unified government–and especially by a barely unified government–made for increased spending.

Another one–Mickey Kaus has made a version of it–is that the passage of welfare reform increased public support for (and reduced opposition to) government activism on behalf of working people. It is possible that the effect of its passage has grown with time; government is less and less seen as an enemy of middle-class values and thus public support for governmental activism has kept growing.

A third explanation is that the consequences of Clinton’s defeat of the Gingrich revolution also grew with time. The ideological anti-government fervor of 1995 gradually cooled–especially after the House was no longer led by Newt Gingrich, who could claim to have brought the committee chairmen to power and therefore could impose some discipline on them. And I’m sure that plenty of other explanations would come to mind if I kept thinking about the question. The Clinton-Bush comparison does not strike me as a serious challenge to the theory.

I understated Chait’s argument earlier, come to think of it. He’s not just saying that big-government conservatism is conducive to corruption, he’s saying it’s a form of it. “Big-government conservatism consists of initiatives that benefit economic elites without using free-market mechanisms.” I’m highly skeptical of this claim. The increased spending on education isn’t about benefiting “economic elites,” and nor is the faith-based initiative.

Chait sees various features of the Medicare bill as corporate subsidies. I disagree on some important particulars. For example, while the provision of the law blocking the federal government from negotiating lower drug prices obviously helps pharmaceutical companies, I tend to think it was a good provision. The alternative was to let the government use its market power to set de facto price controls.

And if this sort of thing counts as corruption, why isn’t Third Way liberalism equally guilty of it? There were plenty of companies that supported the Clinton health-care plan in order to have the federal government relieve them of their health costs.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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