Who Loves Big Government Now?

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In
an odd way, liberal Democrats won a historic victory in this year’s
presidential election. Unfortunately for them, that’s not good news.

At
least since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Democrats have
largely defined themselves as advocates of an activist government
that seeks to help people (whether or not they want the help), and
to mold society along what they see as benevolent lines. Democrats
– at least, the liberal variety – have sought to exercise political
power to promote dearly held values such as “tolerance,” “equality”
and “social justice.”

In
response, Republicans, while unreliable advocates of limited government,
generally dragged their heels to slow what they considered a dangerous
and expensive expansion of government power. Small-government sentiment
was aptly expressed by the late Senator Barry Goldwater who said,
“Remember that a government big enough to give you everything you
want is also big enough to take away everything you have.”

The
battle is now over and advocates of activist government won. Far
from reducing the role of government – or even slowing the growth
of federal spending – the Bush administration enthusiastically
enacts programs that expand the scope and reach of the federal government.
From faith-based initiatives in social programs through a budget-busting
Medicare drug benefit to the No Child Left Behind Act’s nationalization
of education, President George W. Bush and his allies in Congress
embrace activist government – with a matching price tag. A March
2004 Cato Institute report
found, “Real discretionary spending increases in fiscal years 2002,
2003, and 2004 are three of the five biggest annual increases in
the last 40 years.”

The
catch, of course, is that socially conservative Republicans may
have embraced liberal Democrats’ love of activist government, but
they haven’t embraced their goals and values. Having learned to
love Big Brother, Republicans are, naturally enough, using the power
of the state to transform America in line with their own vision.

Democrats
complain that the Bush administration uses government agencies to
promote religious values and advance a conservative social agenda.
That’s true – but it’s not surprising. It should have been obvious
to observers of our long-running political theater that the goals
and values that liberals advocate were not the only ones that could
be promoted by pushy bureaucrats with fat checkbooks. Activist government
might be used to “help” people and promote values, but different
people have different definitions of “help” and different values
to promote. If “diversity” and “social justice” prevail under one
administration, “family values” and “morality” rule under the next.
Activist government isn’t an ideologically pure ideal; it’s just
another tool to be wielded by the winners of each election.

And
so the political civil war escalates, with the losers of each election
doomed to have the other side’s distasteful agenda crammed down
their throats.

Under
the circumstances, it’s tempting for libertarians to say, “I told
you so.” Advocates of personal freedom warned for years that modern
liberals courted a fickle mistress in their infatuation with big
government. Now the unfaithful wench is out on the town with a new
beau, and it should be little consolation that she’s no more wedded
to the new suitor than to the old one.

Is
it too late to point out that that the old, fading ideal of limited
government was once a liberal principle – for good reason? Keeping
government within strictly limited boundaries is a pragmatic necessity
in a nation of diverse ideologies, cultures and preferences if elections
aren’t to degenerate into winner-takes-all battles for domination.

Modern
liberals and conservatives alike may think the country would be
a better place if the government had nearly unlimited power to mold
America in their image. But elections come and go and policies rotate
in and out of favor as parties trade places; the only constant is
unlimited power, to be used by whoever temporarily commands a majority.

The
solution is to strip government of all but a minimal role with power
to match. Yes, that means we all have to give up our grand schemes
to use the government to mold the country for its own “good”; the
payoff is that we won’t be on the receiving end of that power when
the opposition is in charge.

There’s
no rush. The Bush administration will be in power for four more
years, and it has an ambitious agenda. According
to the Christian Science Monitor, “the items the president
has mentioned touch on some of the most fundamental aspects of American
government. If all are enacted, history might judge the Bush presidency
a conservative counterpart to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.”

How
about that!

If
liberals decide that a government of modest scope and ambition isn’t
such a bad idea after all, they’ll find ready allies among libertarian
keepers of the limited-government flame.

November
8, 2004

JD
Tuccille [send him mail] is
an Arizona-based writer and political analyst.

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