• Who Loves Big Government Now?

    Email Print
    Share

    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.

    Email Print
    Share