The Corner

Hey Big Spender

There have always been two distinct but often mutually reinforcing conservative arguments against big spending. The first is the classically Republican “government should be run like a business” argument. Spending too much, means taxing too much which is bad for economic growth. Deficits are problems for governments just as they are for the local Five and Dime. Live within your means, etc etc.

The second argument is classically conservative. Government spending is like welfare, addictive and degrading. When the government tries to do for people what they should properly do for themselves it is destructive to self-reliance and individual initiative. Deficits are a green-eyeshade concern at best.

Today, it seems that President Bush is defying both principles. By signing on to a huge expansion of Medicare, Bush has agreed not only to a budget-busting expansion of the federal budget, he has also agreed to a major advancement in government control of the private sector. How much this will corrupt individual or business initiative remains debatable, but it’s impossible to deny that Bush has at least agreed to the violation of a conservative principle. There may be pragmatic justifications for some of this — the war on terror should come first, for example.

But I also think what we’re really witnessing is a profound and probably permanent change in the principles of conservatism which has been building for decades.Irving Kristol, for example, was considered heretical among conservatives years ago for arguing that a welfare state which protected the neediest and the eldery was not incompatible with conservatism (a position that, ironically enough, Pat Buchanan not only holds now but considers to be the heart of his economic philosophy). According to Kristol, Social Security, for example, is hardly a threat to the values of the elderly who have worked their entire lives.

I always thought “compassionate conservatism” was a mixture of meaningless Madison Avenue marketing and Clintonian triangulation. But it turns out compassionate conservatism is an ideology of conservative activism. This isn’t a blanket condemnation since I like some of the things Bush is doing — or says he wants to do — a great deal. Indeed, a defense of compassionate conservatism might include the point that it calls not so much for the expansion of government as the re-arrangement of government institutions along the lines of the Homeland Security shake-up. But that defense would be stronger if it included less paper-shuffling and more profound changes — like privatizing social security, reforming entitlements and re-seizing the initiative on the faith-based initiatives.

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