The friends of freedom are accustomed to being beaten like a rented mule in Washington. Is it time to give up hope for any rollback of Leviathan? Not according to James Antle, a contributing editor for The American Conservative and a very talented writer who has done fine work for the American Spectator, Wall Street Journal, and other publications.
Antle’s new book, Devouring Freedom, seeks to provide a roadmap for how politicians and activists can curb federal spending and power grabs. Antle is bluntly realistic:
Cutting government is extremely difficult and rarely accomplished. In a perversion of Say’s Law (‘supply creates its own demand’), the supply of government creates its own demand. The breakneck growth of a deficit-financed welfare state makes it inevitable that more voters will develop similar attachments to proliferating government programs, though the broad-based tax increases that they entail will dampen the enthusiasm of some.
He reveals some of the ways the game is rigged: “Even the conventional economic statistics are stacked against the opponents of big government: they measure a dollar spent by Washington without taking into account whence that dollar came.”
Unlike your typical political scientist or Washington Post columnist, Antle recognizes the charade of cosmetic reforms: “Government programs are like weeds. If they are merely trimmed, they will grow back. They must be uprooted when possible.” Unfortunately, there is a distinct shortage of weed pullers inside the Beltway.
Unlike many right-leaning pundits, Antle does not fudge on the disastrous record of George W. Bush: “Enrollment in 25 major federal programs increased three times as fast as the population between 2000 and 2006.” Bush did much to propel the explosion of food-stamp enrollment even before the 2007 recession.
The No Child Left Behind Act deserves the brickbats it receives in Devouring Freedom.
That law was falsely sold as giving freedom to local school officials. In reality, it empowered the feds to judge and punish local schools for not fulfilling arbitrary guidelines. Many states “dumbed down” academic standards, using bureaucratic racketeering to avoid harsh federal sanctions. Though the No Child Left Behind Act promised to permit children to escape “persistently dangerous” schools, most states defined that term so as to claim that all their schools were safe.
Regnery may have targeted Devouring Freedom at readers who have not closely followed political battles in recent decades. The book declares, “The nexus of big-government and big business remains a well-kept secret.” This is a secret only to people who get all their information from their “Obama phone.” David Stockman, former director of Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget, flogged business subsidies 30 years ago, and even the mainstream liberal media sometimes jibes corporate handouts.
The book is kind to a fault to Newt Gingrich’s glory years. It declares that the 1996 “Freedom to Farm act set agricultural subsidies on a glide path to elimination.” In reality, that farm bill tripled cash handouts to farmers and sufficed with an unenforceable pledge to phase down subsidies in the next century. The budget deficits of the mid-1990s vanished primarily because federal revenue rose almost three times as fast as the inflation rate between 1994 and 1998. In a series of budget deals with Bill Clinton, Gingrich did more than any other Republican to unleash the federal spending he later deplored while seeking the Republican presidential nomination. (The fact that so many Republicans still consider Gingrich a “deep thinker” does not inspire hope for the movement.)
Antle justly lauds the Republican-controlled Congress of 1947–48, which struck down some of the New Deal’s worst excesses. “Led by Sen. Robert Taft … the Eightieth Congress rolled back the militarization of the U.S. economy and prevented the creation of a full-blown European-style welfare state.” Federal spending fell from a wartime high of 43.6 percent of GDP to 11.3 percent in 1948. “Wartime price controls on food and other consumer products were repealed. Taxes were cut. The peacetime draft was, at least temporarily, suspended.” And changes to federal labor law curtailed the power of the nation’s largest unions. President Truman pilloried Republicans as a “do-nothing Congress.” But after a long period of mushrooming government, repealing bad laws and slashing spending is the height of public service.
Devouring Freedom reminds one of a passionate football coach chalking out savvy defensive plays in front of a roomful of listless players who have no desire to tackle their opponents. Many Americans, remembering the rhetoric of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, have counted on conservative organizations to resolutely block the expansion of government power. But the sellouts keep on coming. The New York Times reported on April 9 that the American Conservative Union has solicited contributions from business lobbyists to help thwart the push for budget cuts. A draft proposal circulating in Washington even offered to use the Conservative Political Action Conference to blunt attacks on federal infrastructure and military spending. Campaign for Liberty president John Tate observed that the proposed lobbying effort “smacks to a lot of people as taking big money to do the bidding of big business.”
When Georgia governor Lester Maddox was criticized in the late 1960s for the abysmal conditions in his state’s prisons, he blamed the problem on the poor caliber of the convicts. Similarly, government has been growing by leaps in bounds thanks in large part to the mental turpitude and character defects of the typical member of Congress. Antle observes late in the book: “Opponents of big government … overestimated the degree to which the average American understands the details of the federal budget and what’s at stake.” But most members of Congress also have little or no understanding of the vast majority of federal programs. For every Tom Coburn—the Oklahoma Republican senator who plunges avidly into the details and issues reports on backburner boondoggles—there are a score of congressmen who vote like a know-nothing herd following leadership’s command.
“Freedom” is a word that Republicans enjoy evoking when Democrats are in charge of the White House and executive branch. But one of the best gauges of character is the number of Republican congressmen who openly resisted the abuses and power grabs of George W. Bush. To say that the list is short is the understatement of the year.
It is pathetic that the biggest civil-liberties issue thus far this year is whether the president should be permitted to assassinate Americans residing within the nation’s boundaries. Even more appalling is that few congressional Republicans stepped up to support Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster on this issue. And despite a token gesture to Paul from Attorney General Eric Holder, Americans still know almost nothing about the extent of, and legal rationale for, Obama’s prerogative to order killings based solely on his own decrees.
Few Republican congressmen today have the gumption to oppose almost boundless executive power, even when the executive branch is controlled by their arch-enemy. Can you imagine Everett Dirksen taking the floor of the Senate to boisterously champion President Lyndon Johnson’s prerogative to read the private mail of Dirksen and every other Republican member of Congress? With their own party in the White House, however, GOP members of Congress gave Bush a standing ovation when he bragged about his illegal “Terrorist Surveillance Program” warrantless wiretapping in his 2006 State of the Union address. Perhaps many of today’s Republican members of Congress are so clueless that they do not recognize the peril of permitting Obama to perpetuate the secret surveillance that Bush commenced.
Devouring Freedom warns, “Republicans who are committed to the fight against big government may have to fight their leaders first.” Unfortunately, it is difficult to see any sign of a learning curve from GOP leadership. Antle notes, “Shortly after the November 2012 elections, Congressional Republicans purged four strong fiscal conservatives—Justin Amash of Michigan, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, David Schweikert of Arizona, and Walter Jones of North Carolina—from their preferred committee assignments.” Kicking Amash and Huelskamp off the Budget Committee signaled that the Republican leadership would not tolerate any principles when it came to negotiating tax-and-spending deals with Obama. Expelling Walter Jones from the House Financial Services Committee was especially tawdry since Jones was out of the few courageous and sagacious Republicans opposed to the Iraq War (an unforgivable sin).
Antle does not lull readers with assurances of no-sweat victories:
It would be foolish to claim that stopping big government is easy. Many people clearly benefit from government. Others perceive benefits where they may not exist. Most of all, asking politicians to think of something more important than fundraising or reelection cuts against human nature. But big government has been challenged before, with some success. With some courage—and more than a little luck—it can happen again. Learning from the recent past is a great place to start.
But how many Republican congressmen are more interested in freedom than in power? Far fewer than most readers would wish. And what are the chances that an effective core of pro-freedom congressmen will arise who are as eloquent as Reagan, as tough as Phil Gramm, and as well-informed as David Stockman?
Antle points Republicans and conservatives in the right direction, but it is unclear how many will heed his message.
James Bovard is the author of Lost Rights, Attention Deficit Democracy, and a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan.