If the era of big government was ever truly over, it is now back by popular demand. The voting blocs demanding largesse from Washington currently outnumber those clamoring to keep government small and taxes low. While many books and magazine articles have been written about repackaging the Right, and a few advance anti-statist arguments, only two recent releases focus on solving this problem: Leave Us Alone, by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and The Politics of Freedom, by David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute and the man who persuaded Starbucks to print “laissez-faire” on their customized cards. Both authors try valiantly to restore limited government to our political lexicon.
To get a sense of how far small-government conservatism has fallen, take a look at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s recent “Nine Real Acts of Change.” Gingrich was always a deeply flawed figure, and the original Contract with America had its share of gimmickry, but anti-statist rhetoric nevertheless played a large role in the 1994 Republican campaign. The first two to three years of the Gingrich Congress represent the last time the GOP made a serious attempt to cut federal spending.
Fourteen years and more than $1.5 trillion later, the best government-cutting ideas Gingrich can come up with are a summer gas-tax holiday paid for by unspecified reductions in discretionary spending and trimming the Census Bureau’s budget. Even the moratorium on earmarks doesn’t really count, because earmarking merely affects the disbursement of federal funds, not the level of spending. Getting rid of every earmark in a bloated appropriations bill would not directly cut any spending—it would simply empower bureaucrats to hand out the cash rather than congressmen.
Although “Nine Real Acts of Change” might be a particularly glaring example, the failure of imagination isn’t Gingrich’s alone. Most recent conservative books and articles about how the Republicans can get their groove back contain the assumption that any meaningful reduction in the size and scope of the federal government—once a core objective of the American Right and a staple of Republican campaign rhetoric—is off the table indefinitely, perhaps permanently. The authors of these manifestos, who include some of the Right’s brightest domestic-policy thinkers, argue instead that Republicans need to make whatever concessions to big government are necessary to buy off the electorate long enough to bomb Iran or do whatever else the writer in question thinks most important.
This advice comes even though big-government conservatism has manifestly failed not only as policy but also as politics. The strongest argument for it is that programs like the Medicare prescription-drug benefit and No Child Left Behind delayed Democratic victories. It may well be true that without federally subsidized drugs for seniors or centrist-sounding rhetoric about public schools, George W. Bush would have found winning the 2000 and 2004 elections difficult, perhaps impossible. But even if these concessions helped buy a couple of elections, they did not change the debate. The Democrats quickly regained their electoral advantages on Medicare and education, while the GOP found itself in a bidding war it could not win.
To be fair to big-government conservatism’s defenders, they are at least trying to grapple with changes in political circumstances that have made government-cutting, always exceedingly difficult in a mass democracy, a particularly Herculean task today. Some of these changes have been brought about by Republican successes, such as Ronald Reagan’s reductions in marginal income tax rates and the resulting economic growth, which have made big government feel cheaper. These rates are so far below the staggering levels of the 1970s and early ’80s that there is no longer much political mileage or Laffer Curve effect to be gained from promising to cut them further. And as we discovered under Bill Clinton, marginal rates are low enough that the economy can still grow quite smartly if they are raised slightly. “Bracket creep” is gone and millions of voters have been dropped from the income-tax rolls entirely. Republicans still running on a Kemp-Roth platform are responding to the problems of 30 years ago, which their predecessors largely solved.
After Republicans passed and Clinton signed welfare reform, it was harder to make the argument that the federal government was injurious to middle-class values. Harder politically, that is: Social Security, to cite just one example, has undercut the economic logic of the traditional family as much as welfare payments to unwed mothers, though it has been less obviously detrimental to family formation. But Social Security recipients tend to be middle-class people who worked for a lifetime, not some indolent underclass. GOP politicians have generally lacked the political will and the intellectual firepower to make the case against middle-class entitlements.
More often, the obstacles to government-cutting have been brought about by Republican failures. When the GOP took control of Congress in the 1990s, the Cold War’s conclusion made possible significant cuts in defense spending, the baby boomers were prospering financially and were still far from retirement, and there was a broad consensus—shared even by a Democratic president— that markets worked better than government bureaucracy. The Gingrich Republicans were not without accomplishment and would probably have been more successful had it not been for that Democratic president’s demagoguery. But when you take a look at how little they were actually able to do with these opportunities, especially compared to the enduring spending reductions passed by the 1947-48 “Do Nothing” Congress at the apex of big-government liberalism, the 1994 “revolution” can only be judged a monumental flop.
It is tempting, and usually correct, to blame President Bush for the problems facing the Right. But the Republican Congress never recovered from its 1996 budget battle with Clinton and had mostly stopped doing anything worthwhile by 1998—before Bush declared his candidacy and Gingrich surrendered the speaker’s gavel. By the time Bush became president, Republicans were so happy to be in power that they seldom complained when he failed to build on Gingrich’s few successes (welfare reform) and even reversed them (farm subsidies, the budget surplus, and the federal government’s share of GDP).
Today the country lacks a powerful constituency mobilized on behalf of limited government to counteract voters who want more from Washington. As the more Bush-sympathetic Ramesh Ponnuru put it in National Review, “There are more voters who care deeply about keeping the Small Business Administration in operation than there are voters who care deeply about shutting it down.” But even here, Republicans are not entirely blameless. They increasingly tell their constituents—who are basically the same voting blocs the GOP appealed to in 1994—that their interests are best served not by smaller government but by Republican-controlled government. Where ridiculous little programs like midnight basketball were once used as an example of out-of-control federal spending, now they are about the only spending Republicans promise to cut.
In this political climate, Norquist and Boaz are outliers. They have both spent decades fighting for limited government from the unlikely location of Washington, D.C. They both champion policies aimed at ensuring more Americans derive their incomes from the free market than the redistributive state, according to the investor-class or ownership-society theory of how to produce small-government voters. They both are as protective of civil liberties as they are of taxpayers’ pocketbooks. Where they and their books differ is that Norquist works within the Right and the Republican Party while Boaz advocates a libertarian third way that transcends the conventional Left-Right spectrum.
While Boaz’s book is a collection of past essays about policy as well as political strategy, Norquist’s—which I’ve discussed previously in The American Spectator—is a new roadmap for Republicans in 2008 and beyond. Norquist argues that Republicans should represent the Leave Us Alone Coalition, a group of voters who want to keep the government from taking their guns, money, and freedom, leaving the Democrats to champion a Takings Coalition of voters on the dole. The battle between the two coalitions, he says, will determine whether the United States becomes a European-style welfare state or not.
“If nothing is done,” Norquist warns, “even if no new taxes are raised, no new spending programs invented, the simple growth of federal government spending driven by the existing entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and the aging of the baby boomers will drive federal spending from 20 percent of the economy to 40 percent by 2050.” Norquist proposes countering this trend by ensuring that health insurance, pensions, and education are all individually owned and controlled rather than handed out as government benefits. That means succeeding on entitlement reform where Bush failed and becoming serious about free-market healthcare reform where the GOP has in the past paid lip service.
Boaz sounds some Norquistian notes of his own, contending that “Republicans win when they cut taxes.” He further argues, “The tax consumers in our society are well organized; the taxpayers need to be organized, too.” He also favors Social Security privatization, medical savings accounts, and school choice. Harder-line libertarians might raise objections: Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind began as ownership-society initiatives—the first was to contain real free-market reform of Medicare, the second to expand school choice—and ended as egregious examples of big-government conservatism. Vouchers could end up socializing private schools rather than privatizing education. But even this is too radical a limited-government program for either party this year.
Norquist and Boaz look to very different voters to support their agenda. Norquist describes the Religious Right primarily as a parents-rights movement of people who want to practice their faith and raise their children without government interference. Boaz sees religious conservatives as moral busybodies who want to run people’s lives as comprehensively as any liberal central planner. The Religious Right is as vital a part of Norquist’s Leave Us Alone Coalition as supporters of same-sex marriage are of Boaz’s nonpartisan politics of freedom.
Who’s right? There are religious conservatives who fit both Norquist’s description and Boaz’s. Recent polling shows that the appeal of limited government to younger evangelicals is, well, limited. Other social conservatives prefer candidates who broadly share their values but, as Norquist has argued, don’t have a detailed ten-point program. Thus they were enthusiastic backers of GOP budget hawks in the 1990s and big-government conservatives today; they voted for Bush (and before that, Pat Buchanan) when he was for a humble foreign policy, then went cheerfully along for the ride to Iraq.
Forget these fair-weather friends of liberty, says Boaz. Instead of sticking with the anti-statists, small-government supporters should focus on the libertarian swing vote, which he claims is roughly 20 percent of the electorate and helped cost Republicans control of Congress. According to Boaz and David Kirby, executive director of America’s Future Foundation, libertarians gave Bush 72 percent of their votes in 2000. After four years of “war, wiretapping, and welfare-state social spending,” Bush won only 59 percent. In the 2006 congressional elections, Republicans again won just 59 percent of the libertarian vote. Divided government and competition between the parties might be a more promising political strategy than tying the Leave Us Alone Coalition to the GOP.
Unfortunately, the libertarian swing vote may also contain some inconsistent friends of freedom. Based on Boaz’s own figures, a majority of them still voted Republican at the height (one hopes) of big-government conservatism and they experienced their biggest swing toward the Democrats in 2004, when pro-war, pro-Patriot Act, tax-and-spend John Kerry was the presidential candidate. That’s partly due to imperfect political choices but it doesn’t help that Boaz’s definitions are so elastic: Lots of people will tell pollsters that they prefer lower taxes and fewer government services in the abstract without actually favoring such policies in practice.
Boaz seems to be talking about voters who consider themselves fiscally conservative but socially liberal. These people are not necessarily libertarians, however. Some self-described fiscal conservatives support higher taxes to reduce the deficit. Others are content to run deficits as long they get to cut taxes. Similarly, many social liberals believe in taxpayer-funded abortion and embryonic stem-cell research and would have the government force religious institutions to override their moral teachings on homosexuality. If you consider pro-choice (on abortion only) Jon Stewart more libertarian than pro-life Ron Paul, there is probably something wrong with your definition of libertarianism.
Even with a better definition, there remains a problem: The politicians who are with Boaz on the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, and the federal marriage amendment are more often than not against him on Social Security, school choice, and tax cuts. The opposite is also true. How then does a libertarian voter choose? War would seem to be the deciding factor—Boaz reports that libertarians who considered Iraq the number-one issue broke 64 percent to 31 percent for Democratic congressional candidates in 2006—but some Beltway libertarians seem more uncomfortable with social conservatives than with superhawks. What, though, if lower capital gains taxes and expanded 401k’s really are a better way to make voters more market-friendly than undercutting the traditional family and increasing unskilled immigration?
Some of Norquist’s conservative coalition partners might complicate his project as well. Many of them are more interested in the simulated drowning of Islamofascists than drowning government in a bathtub. And plenty of anti-statists would rather end the war than the estate tax. Both kinds of reader will object to the small role foreign policy plays in Norquist’s vision. Some might prefer Boaz’s quest for philosophical consistency to Norquist’s microtargeting.
Leave Us Alone’s biggest advantage over The Politics of Freedom is that of the tried against the untried: Some version of Norquist’s proposed coalition has existed before and, while it could never roll back New Deal liberalism, it has countered the economic changes that alarm Norquist at least three times in the last 60 years. Boaz wants to make something that has long existed in the realm of ideas viable in electoral politics. We don’t know what the future will bring, but those who hope for greater individual freedom would do well to contemplate both of these blueprints for limited government.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.