Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Big Government Conservatism

The term "big government conservatism" is oxymoronic in terms of Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism. In the best of all possible worlds there would be no such thing. Furthermore, a national government that was by and large relatively small, weak, unintrusive and penurious was the norm before the Great Depression and the major political realignment that would transfer the keys to the political kingdom to the Democrat Party. Political affairs used to be a lot more to the liking of conservatives than they are now. If only we could make it so again. But can we?

Franklin Roosevelt's achievements in mitigating the devastating effects of Great Depression mass unemployment are debatable and it can be fairly argued that he did more harm than good by inhibiting the needed capital investment that would later be dramatically increased during WWII. However, an ounce of image is often worth more than a pound of performance in some circumstances and Democrat initiatives during the Roosevelt administration offered the only hope of future employment and economic security to much if not most of the population. For every person desperately unemployed there was very likely another who feared the same fate and there were others still who knew them both and sympathized with their plights and almost all looked to government to do something useful to help them. The era of big government was upon us.

The Great Depression produced what Thomas S. Kuhn may have classified as a paradigm shift. It certainly led to a radical change in general American thinking about the role of government in the economy and the respective duties and responsibilities of citizen and state. While there are conservatives who would very much like to put the toothepaste back into the tube it is unlikely they will make much progress in doing so. Americans, in the main, seem to want a big, activist government that solves problems and cures ills. So, what to do? Get real.

If the majority of Americans want a big, activist government it makes sense to give it to them. Doing otherwise is a recipe for political oblivion. If Republicans are to prevail against their Democrat rivals they need to propose policies and legislative initiatives that promise to make things better and those policies and initiatives should be designed to appeal to a majority of the electorate. At the same time they can endeavor to make those policies and initiatives consistent with some conservative values. That entails sensitivity to economic consequences, using economic incentives instead of coercion and block grants to states rather than centralized command and control bureaucracies enforcing one-size-fits-all solutions. The key to success then is creating a general perception that Republicans can do a better job of giving most Americans the big government they seem to want. That can be achieved by persuading most voters that Republicans are more innovative, more efficient and more pragmatic than their Democrat counterparts while being no less caring than Democrats about those who find themselves at or near the bottom of the economic totem pole. Republicans can also make a persuasive argument that they are less beholden to single-issue special interest groups than their Democrat rivals.

Democrat activists who hold an opinion on the matter seem to generally agree that their political party lacks a coherent message and "ideas" that a majority of voters would find appealing. They are correct. You can't cobble together a coherent, majoritarian message out of the conflicting or unrelated demands and priorities of NOW, the ACLU, AFL-CIO, Environmental Defense Fund, NAACP and other constituencies with public policy tunnel-vision. Sound public policy is not the mathematical product of minority grievances and rent-seeking.

I was once a small-government, traditional conservative who would have been delighted to witness the abolition of whole departments of government and a general retreat from big government. In time, I realized that the political product most appealing to the majority of voters is effective, efficient, pro-active, big government. George Bush's compassionate conservatism fills that bill. That product sells well and the Republican control of Congress and the White House are evidence of that.

I fancy myself a pragmatic conservative. Ideological wishful thinking is, to me, pointless. I am therefore a big government conservative. If we are compelled to perform odious tasks in order to gain and maintain political power let us at least try to do a more credible and efficient job than our clueless competition.


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