December 11, 2008

The Beltway Right is still venting its collective spleen over Bill Kristol’s latest Times op-ed in which he argues, rather elliptically, that the conservative movement and GOP should get rid of its “€œsmall government,”€ “€œrugged individualism”€ talk, which scares people, and instead spend their years in exile developing a governing philosophy for the modern welfare state”€”not too big, not too small, just right.

Or something like that. The fact is, Kristol’s argument isn’t about the actual size of government, which he takes as immutable, but instead amounts to a kind of semantic game in which the objective is to give the state the most conservative and vigorous-sounding names: “€œliberalism”€ is bad, but then government should be big enough to be properly “€œenergetic”€; “€œsocialism”€ is, of course, unthinkable, but “€œnational greatness”€ is another story.

Michael Tanner of Cato is right to observe that in Kristol’s embrace of Douthat-ization, he’s awfully disconnected from reality and seemingly incapable of understanding why the GOP lost big in the fall. Kristol appears to live an alternative universe in which the House Republicans were defeated due to their devotion to Barry Goldwater and “€œPresident Bush’s commitment to bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive government … has brought about his soaring approval ratings.”€ (Tanner could have mentioned that the GOP floundered in “€™08 because of Mr. Kristol’s war, but perhaps this would be a bit too much to ask since his comments appeared at NRO.)

Whatever the case, this certainly wouldn”€™t be the first time Kristol has advised the GOP and his movement colleagues to tack leftward. Back in “€™92, Kristol received kudos from his future employer for trying to remove the “€œanachronistic”€ (in his words) pro-life plank from the GOP platform, and throughout the “€™90s, he took pains to emphasize that he’s pro-mass immigration and an admirer of LBJ.

Kristol, of course, would never try to make the GOP pro-choice now. After Iraq, the Religious Right remains the most fanatical supporters of expansionist foreign policy in the Middle East”€”Kristol’s issue numero uno“€”and he wouldn”€™t dare question these voters”€™ fascination with Israel and the End Times and their other bizarre hangups. Kristol has, however, kept up his attacks on the Goldwater-ite wing of the party, and even dedicated pages in The Weekly Standard to the depiction of Ron Paul supporters as crazed hippies. (Well, if Kristol thinks we”€™re threat, then we must be doing something right!)

Amongst the quibblings with Kirstol at NRO, one critique stands out from the rest”€”John O’sullivan’s:

The best riposte to Bill Kristol comes from Hayek. He pointed out years ago”€”sorry, don’t have time to track down the citation”€”that the idea of small government was vital even if there was no prospect of its ever being achieved. […]

If we were lucky, a barrier might even gain a quasi-religious status over time, as the Gold Standard did in England until the First World War, and instill in voters the fear that tampering with it would be an impious act or even simply impossible. This worked for quite a while. When the Tories floated the pound in 1931, a former Labour minister, Lord Passfield (aka Sidney of Sidney and Beatrice Webb) said: “€˜They never told us we could do that.”€™


(O’sullivan gestures to Hayek but these sentiments are distinctly English; it’s the Sceptred Isle after where the famous unwritten”€””€œideal”€”€”constitution hangs over every politician’s head.)

Anyway, O’sullivan certainly has a point; however, the real utility of this “€œlimited government”€ ideal comes into question if, as he admits, there remains little “€œprospect of its ever being achieved”€ and it only ensures that big government gets ratcheted up each year a bit more slowly and imperceptibly.

Moreover, praising the notion of small government seems a bit like praising a man who tells his wife he’s traveling to Thailand “€œon business,”€ but really goes to live it up in the brothels. Yes, he gives a compliment to morality by being too ashamed to tell his long-suffering spouse the truth about his misdeeds. The ideal moral standard remains in place. And, yes, this man is certainly better than the swinger who openly invites his wife and friends to get together for a big neighborhood orgy after the Tuesday night PTA meeting. But then the man who pays homage to a moral code, while disobeying, itsn”€™t exactly a paragon of virtue.

Beyond this, O’sullivan’s critique seems a bit misplaced since there don”€™t seem to be any signs of the movement’s or GOP’s giving up “limited government” lip-service anytime soon, even if”€”or, rather, especially if”€”it has no effect whatever on their behavior. One’s reminded of our current president, who claimed last year he “€œgot an A in … bein”€™ fiscally responsible with the people’s money.”€ This from a man who’s grown government at a faster clip than did LBJ and whose 3.1 trillion dollar annual budget is 400 billion in the red. One’s reminded as well of the House Republicans, who made some limited-government grunts in October when they rejected the original Wall Street bailout bill, but then within a week succumbed to fear and bullying and passed a bill that was far, far worse”€”and which marked the largest federal intervention into the economy in U.S. history. Jim Boehner & Co. are exactly the kinds of “€œsmall government”€ conservatives who vote for big government and feel guilty about it afterwards.    

In the end, it”€™d probably more strategically effective for Kristol to pipe down about this supposed menace of “€œsmall government,”€ for the whole of the GOP is still toeing his line and it”€™d seem smart not to alienate them unnecessarily. Since the November debacle, no major Republican or movement conservative has turned decisively against the Kristol-Bush foreign policy, nor even speculated that”€”maybe, just maybe”€”the GOP might have lost big because of the Iraq war. Moreover, as the economy continues to meltdown, there simply won”€™t be any major government-limiting efforts any time soon.  The small government Right is all jaw-jaw, and it’s rather obscene for Kristol to be complaining about a party that still very much under his sway.

Alas, I”€™ve become convinced that the only kind of effort to dismantle the welfare state that might at all be effective wouldn”€™t involve Congressional Republicans rediscovering The Road to Serfdom but instead some underground rightists commandeering a fleet of bulldozers and giving the departments of labor, education, energy, and the Federal Reserve the old Götterdämmerung treatment. I suggest we put Kevin DeAnna in charge of this project immediately.    


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