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Big Government, Complex Government, and the Future of Conservatism

If this be nihilism, make the most of it. Michael Hirsh defends House conservatives’ opposition to the fiscal cliff bargain. The deal meets the standard for agreement-at-any-price “pragmatism”. On the other hand:

Tuesday’s “no” votes represented a wide variety of views. But many GOP House members were appalled at the failure to cut spending or change traditional ways of doing business, especially what The Washington Post noted was “dozens of rider provisions that had nothing to do with the cliff” (including one that kicked over $12 billion over ten years to the renewable-energy industry; another that will benefit the owners of auto-racing tracks in the amount of $78 million; and a $1 million break for coal-mining operations on Indian lands). The House members opposed to this old way–as naïve as they often sound–make up the core of a legitimate resistance movement in American politics, one that is trying to stop the relentless tendency of U.S. government to grow ever larger and more complex, and one that remains frustrated at the continuing inability of its representatives, both Republican and Democrat, to rein that tendency in.

Hirsh makes good points both about the nature of the deal and the sources of opposition. Like the “tea-party rebellion” he defends, however, Hirsh conflates two problems into a single destructive tendency–a misunderstanding that makes it hard to identify politically viable responses.

One issue is the size of government, as indicated by government spending per capita, government spending as a share of GDP, or other broad measures. The other is the complexity of government, as measured by the proliferation of the tax code and regulations, subsidies for particular industries, or other specific policies. Size and complexity often go together: the labyrinth of the defense budget is a good example. But they need not do so: although Social Security is fiscally gargantuan, it is a rather simple program.

Conservative critiques tend to identify gargantuan size as the main problem with modern administrative state. This argument, however, usually fails to connect with ordinary citizens, who generally like big government provided that it is delivered in a predictable and relatively transparent way. Social Security, again, is a case in point. According to this poll, for example, 53% of American prefer raising taxes to changing the retirement age or lowering benefits.

What Americans do not like are complex programs that require expert assistance to navigate, and therefore confer disproportionate benefits on those who can afford the assistance of lawyers, accountants, and lobbyists. Although it is hard to make out from polls, I suspect that this consideration is the basis of continuing disapproval for Obamacare. The issue here is not simply that providing universal health coverage would be expensive. It’s that the Administration’s plan for doing so is a Rube Goldberg contraption that threatens to make unintelligible the already confusing insurance system.

Dan McCarthy recently counseled conservatives to understand the struggle against big government as a long-term project rather than a unitary problem to be resolved by dramatic votes like that on the fiscal cliff or debt ceiling. The place to start might be to accept, at least temporarily, bigness in government while attacking complexity wherever possible. This strategy would allow conservatives to stake out a position against unnecessary regulation, expensive subsidies, and potentially criminal cronyism while reconciling them to the reality that Americans like their basic entitlements and are reluctant to change them. And that would be far from nihilism.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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