It would probably be better just to ignore Barone’s latest article, but his argument contains so many dubious and fantastical claims that it is useful as an example of how short Republican memories are and how stupid mainstream conservative pundits must think their audience is. One of the most incredible claims is one of Barone’s most important:
The Progressives have always assumed that people needed safety nets and would welcome dependence on government. The public’s clear rejection of the Democratic health care bills has shown that this assumption was unwarranted. Americans today prefer independence to dependence on government, just as they did 200 years ago [bold mine-DL].
If we have found out anything over the last few months, it is that the public’s views on health care and health care legislation in particular are anything but clear. For every survey showing a narrow majority declaring the bill to be a “bad thing,” there is another survey that shows real opposition to the bill is closer to 40% of the population (i.e., the base of the opposition party). The polling numbers fluctuate depending on the phrasing and timing of the questions, and the reasons for opposition are many and varied. There has been no “clear public rejection” as of yet. Much of the opposition to health care legislation has came from Republican Medicare defenders and voters 65+ who overwhelmingly oppose the bill because the new legislation reduced Medicare payments. Real entitlement reform is unthinkable and Paul Ryan’s proposed budget is politically radioactive (and totally unacceptable to his own party leaders) because most Americans are quite satisfied with significant dependence on government. This health care bill is a bad bill in part because it exacerbates and deepens this problem. The trouble is that there are scant few heirs of the Founders out there, and the more you press modern Americans you will find that hardly any of them actually believe that the federal government should be as limited, small and relatively weak as all of the Founders believed it should be.
In the last ten years, it has been the party of insolvency, the Republican Party, that has been offering up free lunches and government expansion: new entitlements and lower taxes. I won’t pretend that the Democratic Party is really any more fiscally responsible, because it is not, but it is important to understand that the discontent the bill is causing does not derive on the whole from hostility to bigger government as such. The political problem is that the new legislation will impose some costs instead of providing subsidies that will be paid for entirely by the next generation. To the extent that the health care bill is unpopular, it is mostly unpopular because it theoretically deprives people of benefits from the government they are used to receiving. What we are more likely to see is the restoration of all cuts under tremendous pressure from the constituencies that depend on them.
I should also object to Barone’s retrojection of 20th century political issues onto the late eighteenth century. Liberty and independence were watchwords of the revolutionary and early republican period, and there was a strong Country political tradition that stressed the importance of economic independence as the basis for political liberty and constitutional government. This was the tradition Jefferson relied on as he articulated his agrarian republican theory, which so many supposed defenders of American identity mock and scorn, and it had as much to do with opposing concentrated private wealth as it had to do with opposing concentrated power in government. On the whole, the Republican Party has opposed and repudiated this tradition for its entire history, and it is only a series of historical accidents that have led any sympathizers with this tradition to align themselves with this party in recent decades.
The struggle between the Crown and the patriot rebels was not concerned with dependence on the state of the kind we debate today. Obviously, the independence sought by the rebels was that of would-be sovereign states separating themselves from the existing polity. The points of contention were encroachments of Parliament against the rights of colonial legislatures, the imposition of taxes without the consent of those legislatures, and an unwillingness on the part of colonials to shoulder part of the tax burden needed by the British state for funding the colonies’ common defense. It was a matter of retaining political prerogatives and chartered rights guaranteed to all Englishmen. As attractive as a simplistic scheme of anti-statist/statist can be, this completely misrepresents the nature of the struggle before and during our War for Independence.
What is more, the Founders did not “stand for the expansion of liberty,” but obviously were committed to the preservation of existing chartered liberties. From their perspective, there was no question of expanding liberty. The issue was one of protecting what liberty they had against the encroachments of Crown and Parliament. In many respects, they would have agreed with the Burkean idea that liberty had to be limited in order to be possessed. Their conception of liberty was on the whole a negative one. They aimed to limit and constrain what the government could do, and constructed a political structure that they hoped would do that. As many Antifederalists warned at the time, the restrictions and checks on government power would prove to be illusory and ineffective. In any case, for the Founders there was no notion of “expanding liberty.” That suggests a kind of activism and an idea of positive liberty that would have made much more sense to later Progressives. Indeed, many mainstream conservatives today speak of “advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world” that would only make sense in light of a Progressive interpretation of American principles.
It is all very well to look to the Founders for guidance and argue that we should adhere strictly to the constitutional limits they envisioned for the federal government, but it is useless to pretend that political opposition fueled by dependence on existing entitlements and partisan attachment to an historically centralizing party that normally favors the interests of concentrated wealth have anything to do with fidelity to the ideas of the Founders.