Who Loves Big Government Now?

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