The Corner

Limited Government Versus Expensive Government

One problem I have with Bill Voegeli’s excellent piece in the Claremont Review of Books (still not online) is the very common conflation of government spending and big government as interchangeable terms. Obviously, big governments tend to spend a lot and governments that spend a lot tend to be big. But they are not identical things. For example, Charles Murray’s argument for a direct payment to each and every American citizen (not in jail and over 21) would render a government that spends a lot, but it would also yield a much smaller government in terms of its scope and intrusiveness. A champion of limited government could certainly embrace Murray’s vision as an improvement to the status quo.

Indeed, many, perhaps even most, of the things that drive champions of limited government nuts don’t directly deal with expense. Campaign finance laws, hate crimes, affirmative action, judicial activism: all of these things have price tags, to be sure, but the cost is often a secondary complaint at best. It’s the abuse of arbitrary power by Washington that sets of Burkean hackles. Even the case against AFDC had less to do with cost and more to do with the culture it created.

Irving Kristol once called for a “conservative welfare state” that involved old age pensions and the like. He argued that Social Security wasn’t going to corrupt the values of old people but it would help the most vulnerable old people. It seems to me that such an argument could still be made by a champion of limited government. The problem with using expenditures as a stand-in for intrusive government is that some very expensive things — like Social Security — aren’t that intrusive (which is not to say they are optimally designed, to be sure) and some intrusive things may even save money, like cigarette taxes*. While I’m not endorsing this myself, there could be a way for champions of limited government to thread this needle — a la Murray — while still offering a politically appealing program of modest redistribution.

Anyway, it’s worth thinking about.

* Woops, forgot to add the footnote: Yes, I am aware that some people claim that smoking saves money because smokers die before they collect Social Security. But you get the point.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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