In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton announced a political course correction, declaring “the era of big government is over.” It was welcome news, especially from a Democrat. Indiscriminately large governments are unaccountable and very expensive; they quash liberty and hinder self-government.
The shift, however, had the unfortunate side effect of validating the impulses and priorities of a small but influential cabal within the Republican Party: libertarians masquerading as conservatives, i.e., free-market obsessives who fetishize “small government”—and Taco Bell, of all things.
President Trump, often the bull in a china shop of stale platitudes, has a way of smashing rotten political thinking and practice by being unafraid to question it. Just think of how he’s been willing to question the ideology spawned by “free market fundamentalism”: an unshakeable belief in capitalism’s unerring goodness. He has something to teach the Republican Party establishment’s political and intellectual elites about the proper purpose and scope of government action, if only they’d listen.
Too many of the Right’s so-called luminaries believe that hollowed-out and opioid-devastated rural communities “deserve to die.” They lamely insist that public policy only minimally influence incentive structures and then throw their hands up, exclaiming that “there are some wounds public policy can’t heal.” Some utterly fail to see how the devastating “creative destruction” of a rigged market economy contributes, either directly or indirectly, to various social pathologies; instead, they see everything through the blinkered view of “personal choice”—as though man is not an imitative animal, embedded in a social context that constrains and directs his thoughts and actions.
Such arguments ignore that government policy caused a great number of our current problems. How, then, do some conservatives believe government has no role to play in reversing those problems. For example, day after day, ostensibly conservative legislators fail to secure our southern border, and the consequences of that failure undoubtedly have helped to generate a “humanitarian and security crisis” but also an economic crisis.
The pre-2016 Republican Party—the party obsessed with shrinking government so small that it could be “drowned in a bathtub”—is by turns self-immolating on the altar of Trump Derangement Syndrome and allowing itself to be torn to shreds by the progressive, “social justice” Left. Good riddance.
If the GOP wants to remain politically relevant, it won’t resist this metamorphosis. The roughly three bona fide libertarians who sometimes vote red simply aren’t worth courting; all they care about is casual sex and legal weed, anyway—neither of which, thankfully, are political winners with the base.
The Cato Institute drank its own anemic government kool-aid and thought everyone else had joined them.
Historically-speaking, as Henry Olsen has astutely pointed out, the politically savvy move is to aim not for small but limited government:
Americans have supported limited but effective government intervention in the economy for at least the past 160 years. They supported the protective tariff, the Homestead Act, and the Land Grant College Act that the first Republican-controlled Congress passed and which helped average people improve their lives. They supported antitrust acts, workman’s compensation laws, and workplace safety laws to prevent monopolies and oligopolies from forcing Americans to work for less or in less safe conditions than they deserved. They supported FDR’s New Deal, which for all of its many faults contained many provisions that even today ensure a depression will never again cause social upheaval and penury. And they continue to support reasonable and targeted interventions when a sector of society can persuade the majority that they have been unfairly treated.
Simply put, “small government” is a fool’s errand, a politically unpopular pipe dream that misunderstood the nature and purpose of American government, in any event. It’s disappointing that conservative pundits and elected officials are gung-ho for what was always a straw man distortion of the conservative position on the proper purpose and scope of government.
What voters want, and what the American Founders wanted, is limited government: one that secures the “safety and happiness” of the people and protects their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Americans want a government that serves their interests first; whether or not such a government turns out to be “small” is largely irrelevant.
No less a statesman than Lincoln agreed. “The legitimate object of government,” he wrote, “is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere” (emphasis in original).
The abstract commitment to the small government “ideal” falls short of what people actually expect and are justified in expecting from their government: protection from various sorts from corrosive forces that threaten their ability to lead meaningful, productive lives and often destroy what they hold dear: family, community, safe living conditions, etc. In other words, things that are necessary to preserve liberty.
Crony capitalism, cultural Marxism, terrorism, and all the dysfunction and danger that flow through our porous southern border—all of these and more must be resisted and managed by a government that puts Americans first. It is possible there is a much bigger role for government than many conservatives who came of age in the post-World War II movement may be comfortable accepting in the abstract. But politics, of course, does not happen in the abstract. Just as the post-war years were shaped by the realities of the time, so too, must our our politics take into account the facts of here and now.
What we must not do, however, is take the preferred policy prescriptions of a different era, rooted in a peculiar historical moment, as normative or dispositive in all times and places; conservatism’s basic orientation ought to be one of prudential preservation of the permanent things, not rigid adherence to once-upon-a-time-useful contingent arrangements.
To think that markets can do no wrong and that it’s heretical to interfere with them at all is to ignore reality. No doubt markets are engines of prosperity, but they also foment dislocation, atomization, and vice. Economics is rightly subordinated to politics—human flourishing and the common good—which is something the Right must relearn.
Government isn’t inherently evil. It’s actually necessary to secure justice and the common good; that’s why it exists, and the Right need not be afraid of an energetic, active government—within reason and where appropriate.
Of all President Trump’s achievements, perhaps his most overlooked is draining the “small government” fever swamp.
It’s also one of his best.
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