Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Republican's Limited Government dilemma

A great essay by William Voegeli of the Claremont Institute. Big government just keeps on growing, despite the GOP lip service to reverse it. And no, it's NOT because of military spending increases:

Military spending is a minor factor in the overall growth of government. It was 23.2% of federal spending and 5.2% of gross domestic product in 1981. Those percentages peaked in 1987 at 28.1% and 6.1%, respectively. Defense spending fell steadily thereafter, and was just over 16% of the federal budget and 3% of GDP from 1999 through 2001. Since September 11, defense spending has climbed to 20% of the federal budget and 4% of GDP. Despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both figures are lower than they were at any point during Jimmy Carter's presidency.

The engine driving the growth of government has been "human resources"--the Office of Management and Budget's category that includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with other programs for health, education, veterans and income security. Spending on human resources in 1981 was $362 billion, slightly more than half (53.4%) of all federal outlays. That proportion declined to slightly less than half (49.7%) by the time Reagan left office in 1989. But it turns out there was a peace dividend after the fall of the Berlin Wall: National defense spending dropped from 26.5% of federal outlays in 1989 to 16.1% in 1999. That savings--a tenth of the budget--migrated to human resources, where spending climbed to 60% of outlays by 1995. The category has stayed above that level ever since, reaching almost two-thirds of federal spending (65.6%) and 13.1% of GDP in 2003.
So what's the problem? The problem, as the National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru put it, is that,

while a conservatism whose "central mission" does not emphasize the fight against Big Government is inconceivable, a "political coalition in America capable of sustaining a majority" for that mission is unimaginable. Conservatism, in other words, can have a purpose or it can have a prospect. It cannot, apparently, have both.
It is common for one faction of the GOP to blame another faction for betrayal of the conservative campaign against Big Government. All such explanations, however, assume that but for the weakness or hubris of some key player, the conservative project could have succeeded. Sorry, but cutting back the welfare state is MUCH more difficult than that, and those who earnestly try to do so usually get slaughtered politically:

Lacking an appreciation of the challenges they would face, conservatives never developed a political strategy adequate to the task. There was no systematic effort to pare back the welfare state, no disciplined preparation for the inevitable and aggressive counterattacks by interest groups and liberal journalists. Instead, conservatives time and again were shocked to discover that the people who built the welfare state were so unhelpful about dismantling it. Right-wingers fell into long periods of sullen, stupefied resentment, punctuated by frontal assaults that were brief, furious and futile. Think of David Stockman's crusade to cut spending in 1981; or the 1995 government shutdown, the Pickett's Charge of the Gingrich rebels.
So what to do? Mr. Voegeli suggests that:

It makes sense for conservatives to attack liberalism where it is weakest, rather than where it is strongest. Liberals sell the welfare state one brick at a time, deflecting inquiries about the size and cost of the palace they're building. Citizens are encouraged to regard the government as a rich uncle, who needs constant hectoring to become ever more generous. Conservatives need to make the macro-question the central one, and to insist that limited government is inseparable from self-government. To govern is to choose. To deliberate about the legitimate and desirable extent of the welfare state presupposes that we the people should choose the size and nature of government programs, rather than have them be chosen for us by entitlements misconstrued as inviolable rights.

No political strategy can guarantee success. Under no foreseeable set of circumstances will liberals fear giving voters their spiel: We want the government to give things to you and do things for you. Conservatives can only reply that single-entry bookkeeping doesn't work; every benefit the government confers will correspond to a burden it has to impose. A government that respects citizens as adults will level with them about the benefits and the costs. A conservatism that labors to reverse liberalism's displacement of Americans' rights as citizens with their "rights" as welfare recipients may not achieve victory, but it will at least deserve it.

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