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Rumors of Our Demise

September 8th, 2006 · 4 Comments

That Republicans are no longer the party of small government has long been obvious to just about everyone—bar, perhaps, Lewis Lapham, who invariably uses the monthly interruption of his septuagenarian slumbers to harumph out a 1994-vintage column about the merciless reign of the firebreathing laissez-faire ideologues. It’s almost two years since David Brooks articulated the growing consensus on that point in a New York Times Magazine cover story proclaiming “The Era of Small Government is Over.” But there’s been a flurry of pieces on the topic in the last few weeks, the most extreme of which has the New America Foundation’s Michael Lind gleefuly proclaiming in the Financial Times an “epochal event in world politics”:

It is the utter and final defeat of the movement that has shaped the politics of the US and other western democracies for several decades: the libertarian counter-revolution.

Like the famous estimate that there was a global market for (at most) seven computers, or the suggestion at the end of the 19th century that the patent office could be closed (as everything of any interest had already been invented), this is the sort of prediction that invariably proves embarassing to the prognosticator sooner or later. A substantially similar piece, after all, could probably have been written at any number of times in the decades before Reagan, when the bien pensant consensus seemed to be that the West would smoothly but inexorably coast into social democracy. It’s tempting to say, as some of our eulogists suggest, that the emergence of a small government movement was just a bump in the road, a Cold War artifact, but I’m doubtful: The alliance between people or groups whose fundamental instinct is libertarian and people or groups whose fundamental instinct is conservative may well have been an anti-Marxist marriage of convenience. But it is not, I hope, too sanguine to the think that the prospects of political libertarianism needn’t stand or fall with that specific basis for that particular coalition.
As Steve Clemons notes, Bush is sufficiently aberrant along various dimensions that it’s not clear how quick we should be to draw broad inferences about the general trajectory of American politics from this administration. More generally, though, I think there’s a perennial temptation for pundits to confidently extrapolate straight-line continuations of recent trends: More of this, only more so, forever. In fairness, with 800 words, your predictive options are usually limited to that or the slightly more Hegelian “backlash” alternative: The exact opposite of this, very soon.

Ezra Klein’s entry in the genre (which takes a May Cato Unbound forum on the GOP and limited government as its starting point) manages to steer wisely clear of Lind’s world-historical pronouncements, but also seems to read a bit too much into recent public opinion polls (if, after all, the point is that they’ve shifted toward “big government conservatism” in recent years, it’s not obvious that they couldn’t shift back just as quickly) and to identify the upshot of federal politicking with a hypostatized General Will. At best, these reveal, on the one hand, a snapshot of how most people right now are responding to a specific form of political rhetoric under specific conditions, and on the other, the contingent relative power of contingent political coalitions given their present perception of their interests. None of these is inscribed in stone: Recall the (all too brief) progressive flirtation with federalism in the wake of Bush’s reelection.

The premise behind big government conservatism is that if Republicans adopt all the same policies as Democrats, they’ll get twice as many votes—which doesn’t seem particularly sustainable. What we’ve learned in recent years, I think pretty clearly, is that “starving the beast” doesn’t work. If you reduce the perceived cost of government through tax cuts, without corresponding structural cuts in spending, you guarantee government growth—which is why Bush has presided over the largest hike in domestic discretionary spending since LBJ.

But you can’t, in fact, do that forever. At some point, people will need to decide to what extent they’re actually willing to pay for their goodies. Ditto Social Security: The failure of the Republican gambit to reform the program doesn’t make its long-term financing problem vanish. Globalization doesn’t make as many headlines these days, but it’s still happening, and the pressures it exerts are still essentially the same. Reforms like vouchers don’t need to be hugely popular at the national level: They can take root by being tried, and creating a constituency for their perpetuation, one municipality at a time.

None of which is to say that small-government conservatives and classical liberals ought to be optimistic, exactly, especially in the short term. But Gallup polls and horse race politics are a poor indicator of the longer term viability of a broad political philosophy.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 James // Sep 8, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    The chestnut about the patent office isn’t true, and I have my doubts about the market for seven computers story.

    Also, how bees fly has been scientifically established, and Vanderbuilt never said, “The public be damned.” I know you didn’t tell those, but I thought I’d nip this in the bud, as it were, since you also repeat the claim that Social Security has a long term financing problem, which it does not. (Medicare does; Social Security is in fine shape).

  • 2 asg // Sep 9, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    It’s been awhile since I was intimately familiar with SS/Medicare, but I think it would be more accurate to say that both have long term financing problems, but SS’s could be fixed much more easily and with much less pain, whereas Medicare’s can’t.

  • 3 Anonymous // Sep 9, 2006 at 11:51 pm

    “Social Security is in fine shape”

    That depends on how you define “fine shape”. See here:

    Projected OASDI tax income will begin to fall short of outlays in 2017, and will be sufficient to finance only 74 percent of scheduled annual benefits in 2040, when the combined OASDI trust fund is projected to be exhausted.

  • 4 James // Sep 11, 2006 at 5:06 pm

    The 2017 date for “tax income will begin to fall short of outlays” is a very interesting number, given that the last SS “reform” in the early 1980s was specifically designed to allow for the building of a trust fund to continue to fund SS after this demographic shift. Currently, SS tax income exceeds outlays, so the SS taxes are being used to finance the general fund (and, I say ironically, isn’t it odd that few are complaining about this?). For the 2017 date to be important, one must assume that the trust fund reform was a scam and the general fund should not and will not be used to repay its debt.

    Certainly there are all sorts of right-wing schemes for raiding the SS trust fund, but that does not sound to me like it should be labeled “long term financing problems” any more than any other theft or fraud should be so labeled.

    As for 2040, small changes in various assumptions about economic growth, demographics, etc. make that 74% more or less meaningless. But the idea that some hypothetical (and dubious) problem 35 years away should give the current set of liars, thieves, and scoundrels any warrant for action is clearly a bad idea.

    If someone has an ideological opposition to the very idea of Social Security, then by all means try to make the case. But don’t try to cook the books to make the claim that SS is financially “unsound”; the current administration has already done that.