Sunday, July 20, 2008

Big-Government Conservatism is An Oxymoron

Ruffini dissects Brooks latest heretical call for 'activist government' - "In his latest New York Times column, "The Coming Activist Age," Brooks predicts a coming burst of government interventionism in health care, energy, and the economy."

"I remember when Kristol and Brooks first wrote that famous Weekly Standard piece on "national greatness conservatism" in 1997 (recapped in this WSJ op-ed) -- which argued, laugably, for large public momuments as a testament to a more patriotic, nationalist Leviathan. This argument too held up Teddy Roosevelt as a model for right-leaning government activism, and it manifested again in their enthusiasm for John McCain's TR-centric 2000 bid."
I am reminded of two things:
The first is that TR's last electoral foray was as the Bull Moose party head, going against the conservative Howard Taft for not being progressive enough. That was 1912, and Teddy Roosevelt was actually running to the left of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was elected and we soon had the income tax and instruments of Government power in the Federal level we never had before. Wilson's WWI agencies acted as a trail run for the New Deal, which cemented into our modern Big Government.

So what exactly is Teddy Roosevelt of "The new Nationalism" a model for? A divided GOP that hands power to Democrats? A futile move to out socialize the socialists? Or an attempt to deny the small-Government conservatives access to either political party?

The Second thing I am reminded of is a book by Robert Nisbet back in the 1980s "The Current Age", where he argued that despite Reagan, we were in the age of Big Government and it was inevitable with the Cold War. It was Nisbet who alerted me to the connection between Woodrow Wilson and the New Deal, and if you extend it generationally, you have New Dealer LBJ, and the Ickes clan and Kennedy clans carrying the torch to the new generation of socializing Democrats.

The Ron Paulites have a bit of a point - war and socialism do go together. It was a point Robert Nisbet made. And now look at the contrast of the peace of 1990s vs the post 9/11 timeframe. Higher spending in the recent period, not just on military and security, but on other things at the Federal level. The "guns and butter" dual spending sprees seem to go together, as the spirit of common purpose either engenders greater trust in Government or it encourages great fiscal laxity. Both may get burnt out, as the Democrats ply the most unbelievable lie on the American people: That Government failures are due solely and uniquely to Bush administration, and that they are not incompetent like the other folks.

What has changed since Vietnam is that the public cannot trust the Democrats to fight wars. It will trust the Republicans to fight wars. Hence the 2002 and 2004 elections. But if the tenor of the age is public purpose, the 'greatness conservatives' sneak in and say "Why dont we do like LBJ and FDR did, just on the conservative side?"

One problem: Big-Government Conservatism is An Oxymoron. Like the Aesop's fable of the donkey who tries to act like a dog and beg for food at the dinner table. Try to be what you cannot be, and you are just a Jackass at a dinner party.

The fact is clear. We have two political parties. The party of smaller Government and the party of larger Government. One every issue we face, there is a generic question: Should the Government do more or do less? It is certainly boring to be in the position of saying "No" all the time, so the 'greatness conservatives' desperately want to say yes. The problem is, they say yes to the wrong things. Given the choice between two big-Government Democrats, voters pick the real one every time.

We need to reject the siren calls of me-too big Governmentism. Ruffini too rejects it outright - SOS - Same Old Socialism:

As conservatives and libertarians, we must firmly reject the David Brooks idea that Obama's ideas represent the "future" or "change" or even "radical change." They are in fact a radical reaction -- a return to the dreary 1930s when big government, big corporations, and big labor ruled.

At the same time, the politics of "No" are the politics of reactionary losers. If we are against a government program or spending priority, we have to explain why and what the alternatives are.
Ruffini has a better way:
To a certain extent, the industrial age favored a strong government. Government was the only institution that could go toe to toe with the large employers, and conditions for the middle class were enough the same that one size did fit all, to some degree. This is why the New Deal was viable at the time. But with the advent of the information age and the rise of self-employment, those days are over.

Does the same apply to an information age nation of free agents? As a small business owner, my self interest is not for government health care. I want cheaper, individual health plans with a lot of choice, with any risk pooled through free-forming associations of small businesses like mine. The idea that you can only pool health care risk through 20th century corporations or government seems as nonsensical to me as the idea of having to shell out hundreds or thousands for an Exchange server when free apps do the job just as well.

We might call it open source Government or Object-oriented Government. We can move away from one-size-fits-all Government, to a system where there is maximum choice for all, minimum subsidies for anything, and where you use the marketplace to be more flexible for people in different situations. The key word to describe this agenda is choice: Education choice, Social Security choice, healthcare choice, medicare choice. We can even have tax system choice, as there is a proposal to allow taxpayers to choose either the flat tax system or traditional system.

Ruffini says in his closing:
... we need to have confidence that the path of progressively smaller government, progressively lower tax rates, and progressively more individualized solutions on Social Security or health care is the correct one, because it matches up with the realities of today's decentralized free-agent economy.

Exactly so. What has been discredited in the past few years if anything is Governmental hubris: Hurricanes still hurt us; wars are not painless victories; and political corruption and incompetence is endemic and fully bipartisan. Big Government and over-reaching Government has failed us. It's time to remember a basic Management 101 principle: when something or someone goes outside its areas of competence, it fails.

In this 'free-agent' economy, where you outsource everything but your core competence, we can have smaller and smarter Government. Good Government is Government that sticks to its core competence, which is the protection of our rights, our lives and our property from predators, criminals, and enemies. Anything outside that core competence invites Governmental corruption, incompetence, rent-seeking and waste; it repeats the failures of socialism and causes economic dislocations. Every need or desire in the culture or economy, can and should be filled by the actions of free people in the market-oriented, open and free economy and culture.

We can and we must have a 21st century vision of society and our nation built around the conservative principles that we believe in. If we cannot envision it, then we are destined to fight a futile defensive struggle against the encroachments of the other side. But we do have that vision:

1. The Choice Agenda, as mentioned above. Education choice via vouchers. Social Security choice via individual accounts. Healthcare choice through a fundamental deregulation of health insurance, starting with allowing people to get health insurance via any of the 50 states, adding health savings accounts, Medicare choice, and making a level tax playing field between self-insured and employer-insured people.

2. I spoke in a previous article of the "15% solution" where Federal spending was capped at 15% of GDP; we can speak of a Fundamental tax reform agenda that caps spending at 15% and caps tax rates and keeps them as low as possible. This agenda caps spending; moves Federal taxation from production to consumption; opens up Social Security and Medicare to choice; and provides a Federal Taxpayer bill of rights.

3. Open Government. One comment quote mentions: "Conservatives today should be calling out against the placing of an open-ended checkbook into the hands of the political class. " We can end the open-ended checkbook by exposing to light of day all government spending. How? Through Government transparency, wherein Government spending, contracts, and the check registers, are shared online. Leave nothing hidden.

4. Term limits. It was a good idea in 1994 and its a good idea now. To represent the people, one should come from the people and return to the people and not be a 'professional' politician.

Big-Government Conservatism is An Oxymoron.
We must reject it. But we must also not get boxed into the mode of being Dr "No" as the left comes up with more creative excuses for Government control (such as "Oh no, the icecaps are melting polar bears away! Quick, lets regulate the entire energy usage of every person right now!") We need a positive, small-Government conservative agenda. The vision and agenda starts with the principle that Good Government is small Government that sticks to its basic and core responsibilities of protecting our lives, ourselves and our rights and doesn't go outside those core functions.

An agenda of low-tax-rate and limited spending Government, open Government, choice, and citizen representation via term limits is the right Right agenda, or at least is several good planks of such an agenda.

There is perhaps a reason why Mr Brooks is the house 'conservative' columnist for the New York Times. That liberal newspaper is never threatened by what Brooks might say, which is one reason why conservatives must reject it and stick to their conservative principles in putting together an agenda for 21st century conservatism.

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