The Hollow Shibboleth of Limited Government

Previously by Brian Maher: The Arctic Seems To Be WarmingUp

"Limited government." I wedge the term between the tongs of quotation marks for a reason.

It is of course a term that sounds eminently agreeable. Who professes open belief in unlimited government anyway? Even those who do believe never admit it. "Limited government" is a credendum of right-thinking, echt Americans.

But I can't stand the term. Here's why.

"Limited government" is a hollow shibboleth, meaningless for all practical purposes. Never before has so many used a term so often that meant so little. The term is invoked with the same rote mindlessness with which I used to say grace as a religiously indifferent but invigilated youth.

Government limited to what, exactly? How does one define it in the 21st century? No one ever really says. Perhaps it can be likened to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's 1964 definition of pornography — you know it when you see it. Some see it when top marginal tax rates sit at 36% instead of 39%. Others when federal spending is limited to 20% of GDP, as opposed to 25%. Opinions vary.

In reality, nobody save a corporal's guard of paleoconservative and libertarian types embrace a limited government worthy of the term. And they don't seek high office. Nor would many fall in behind them if they did.

Ask the proverbial guy next door if he believes in limited government. He will probably answer heartily in the affirmative. After all, the term still strikes a resonant chord deep within the American breast.

Proceed to ask him if he thinks Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Education — for example — should be eliminated. Not reformed, but eliminated. Ask him if he'd prefer greater retirement benefits or limited government. Greater health care benefits or limited government. Saving the planet for Christ's sake — or limited government. So much for his belief in limited government. Then there's the politicians.

Few things excite my risibilities as the spectacle of one of our national fuglemen gibbering about limited government before mouthing a commitment to saving Social Security or Medicare. Not mild bemusement but paroxysmal, head thrown back, mouth wide open, sidesplitting laughter! Or perhaps I am too far gone in cynicism. I concede the possibility.

"Limited government." In addition to being useless the term is duller than dishwater and precisely as inspiring as an Alan Greenspan lecture on accounting practices. It excites as elevator music excites. We hear it and offer polite applause. We nod our heads dutifully. It makes sense, it appeals to our sense of logic, we know it's the right thing — but how boring.

There were two great orators of antiquity, the Roman Cicero and the Greek Demosthenes. When Cicero spoke the people said, "What a great speech." When Demosthenes spoke, the people said, "Let us march."

No one marches for limited government. No one goes to the barricades for limited government. They do for "Health Care for All," "Save the Planet" or "Social Justice Now."

These are cris de coeur that awaken the blood. They summon our adrenaline. They're calls to action that inspire us to run off and enlist. Limited government inspires us to…nothing in particular. "Limited government" is a terrible marketing slogan. You wouldn't want to have to sell it for a living.

"Limited government" is essentially a shifting line in the sand, erased and redrawn as circumstances demand. During the 1930s critics of the New Deal sang funereal dirges about the eclipse of limited government in America. Rightly so. The damage was extensive, if not fatal. World War II followed in its train. See Randolph Bourne on the relationship between war and the state.

The national security state burgeoned during the 1950s. To heap Pelion upon Ossa, the Great Society came along in the 1960s, riveting big government onto the nation to stay. To talk of limited government after that point was to talk of such things as unicorns.

Yet even now — even now — the point bears emphasis — many believe the United States remains a cynosure of freedom and limited government to which all divergent rays tend. Conservatives still croon about our wondrous system of limited government and how it is only now under such menace from Obama and the Democrats. As if the New Deal, Great Society and over seven decades of statist jurisprudence never even happened.

I have little doubt that twenty years hence, long after Obamacare is as sacred a cow as Social Security, conservative types will be thundering about our great system of limited government and how it will be lost to time if the Democrats win the next election. The 2032 election will be "the most important in our lifetime." Just like the 2008 and 2012 elections.

The cardinal sin of limited government is this, and I realize I am hardly breaking new ground here. "Limited government" is defensive. The political Left is always on about some crisis to be scotched by energetic government action, be it the environment, health care, housing, race, income inequality, bedbugs — you name it. They are forever pressing the attack.

Since the bien-pensant progressive crowd is commonly perceived as the angels on our collective shoulder and the champions of the common man, they find themselves uniquely positioned atop the commanding moral heights.

u2018How can you just sit back and do nothing while there's so much suffering going on,' pule our moral betters. u2018People need help. Government must ACT!'

Who can stand up to that? No one wants to wear the black hat. No one wants to be accused of indifference to a suffering humanity. Certainly not when elections hang in the balance. In consequence, limited government types are always on the back foot. They can only react, having completely ceded the terms of battle to the other side. No successful defense can forever remain static, however.

They cede ground year by year, decade by decade, making one tactical retreat after another. They give a little here to gain a little there. But they lose ground in the aggregate. The limited, constitutional government that fires the minds of so many conservatives has died the death of a thousand cuts along the way.

In closing, since conservatives esteem Burke so highly they should heed his counsel: "The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts." Pretty poignant stuff, that. Liberty has been nibbled away. For expedience. And by parts. Many of us never even noticed. We still don't, and won't until it's too late. Tyranny often approaches on cat's paws.