“Most Americans . . . think that they automatically deserve whatever they've been promised simply because the promises were made.” — Robert Samuelson
Claremont Institute fellow William Voegeli passionately pleads in this article the case of conservatism’s utter failure to make any significant headway in its main goal of achieving limited government. The past three decades of dynamic GDP growth “offered a great opportunity to reduce the relative size of the public sector.”
Voegeli argues that people had more capacity than ever before to assume personal responsibility for many of the human services provided through government. “[G]overnment spending could have grown robustly and still expanded more slowly than the economy, leaving the public sector to absorb a significantly smaller portion of GDP ….” Instead, government spending growth has tracked with GDP growth. “Spending by all levels of government in America amounted to 31.6% of GDP in 1981, and 31.8% in 2006.”
The vast majority of this spending is for social services. Due to increasing longevity and the aging of the baby boom generation, government spending will consume another 10% of GDP over the next generation, even without creating new programs or otherwise expanding existing ones. Voegeli says, “This is the Swedenization of America on autopilot.”
Conservatives were once certain of their principles, claims Voegeli. But when they gained power, they found “conservatism in practice … hemmed in constantly by the fact that the people insist that promises made to them, vulgar or not, must be kept.” Conservatives “time and again were shocked to discover that the people who built the welfare state were so unhelpful about dismantling it.”
One of the great failures of conservatives, argues Voegeli, is their inability to come to grips with the fierceness of the challenges they face in their task. The huge client class that now exists means that “it is much harder for conservatives to dismantle the welfare state than for liberals to build it.” It’s the age-old problem of trying to put the genie back in the bottle. It would have been better to have fought to keep the bottle from being opened in the first place. Of course, that was virtually impossible when the GOP crashed along with economy and the Hoover administration.
Most Americans at all levels of society once held the “conviction … that government had no rightful business undertaking a whole range of social improvements, no matter how gratifying the beneficiaries might find them,” writes Voegeli. By the time conservatives really started to fight, however, the New Deal had smashed that “legitimacy barrier.” People had discovered that they could vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. Conservatives have yet to fully appreciate that most Americans need to be put on an addiction recovery program and that most Americans are still in the denial phase.
Voegeli says that conservatives need to figure out what it is they are really trying to achieve; where it is they want to end up. He postulates a number of questions conservatives should be debating, and he notes some of the debates going on in conservative circles. Accept the welfare state as an unconquerable reality, or boldly try to kill it off? Start with small, symbolic gestures, or go after big programs that actually drive the cost of government? Realistically try to slow the flow (which hasn’t worked yet), or foolhardily try to stop it altogether?
For example, Voegeli provides an argument for accepting the inevitability of the welfare state. “Conservatives who make peace with the New Deal accept the legitimacy of government programs to help the small minority of citizens who are chronically unable to fend for themselves and the larger minority occasionally and transitionally unable to do so.” This school of thought suggests that embracing the welfare state can empower conservatives to help design programs that promote self-reliance and personal prosperity.
On the other hand, says Voegeli, many conservatives feel that any acceptance of the welfare state is tantamount to a repudiation of basic conservative principles; the constitutional “distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people” (Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address). If conservatives don’t insist on re-enthroning original constitutional principles, asks Michael Greve of the American Enterprise Institute, “how can they contest other transformations, past or proposed?” Voegeli writes, “The road to Sweden is paved with sound concessions.”
“The real question for conservatives, then,” asks Voegeli, “is not whether to reject the New Deal but which New Deal to reject--the one on the ground, the thick roster of activist government programs; or the one in the air, the rhetoric and ideas justifying the perpetual existence and expansion of those programs.” Answering this question, Voegeli asserts, “It makes sense for conservatives to attack liberalism where it is weakest, rather than where it is strongest.”
In this light, liberalism is strong in the same way that a drug dealer holds sway over his users, except without the immediacy of the basic cost. “Citizens are encouraged to regard the government as a rich uncle, who needs constant hectoring to become ever more generous.” But liberalism is weak when it comes to trusting individuals and empowering individual choice, as even some prominent Democrats note.
Voegeli says that conservatives must “insist that limited government is inseparable from self-government.” They must insist that individuals be empowered to “choose the size and nature of government programs, rather than have them be chosen for [them] by entitlements misconstrued as inviolable rights.”
Voegeli notes that liberals will continue to tell Americans, “We want the government to give things to you and do things for you.” Conservatives must, he says, be unstintingly diligent in highlighting and educating Americans on the costs and burdens that each of these benefits impose. Voegeli asserts that liberalism has displaced “Americans' rights as citizens with their "rights" as welfare recipients.”
The reality of the matter, however, is that for conservatism to flourish and prevail, a lot of votes are required. It’s a lot easier to buy votes with promises of increasing piles of treats than it is to extract votes with promises of reality and responsibility. It’s easier to go to the dealer than into rehab (unless it’s a celebrity rehab center). That’s why there are many liberals in both major parties. Although political success cannot be assured by remaining true to conservative principles, says Voegeli, at least such success will be deserved, regardless of whether it comes or not.
What is quite apparent from Voegeli’s article is that the conservative movement isn’t nearly as monolithic as some make it out to be. There are significantly differing schools of thought within the movement. As always, groups with differing ideologies struggle for control. While it looks like those that embrace big government have worn out their welcome, this does not necessarily indicate that small government conservatives are ascendant. The movement’s current troubles and internal struggles might be useful if the result is some kind of useful path forward.