When Will Conservatives Actually Make The Serious Case For Smaller Government?

Reihan Salam and James Poulos insist there is value in treating small government as an ideal that guides American policy-making. They're riffing off that recent Wall Street Journal piece by Arthur Brooks, President of AEI, and Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin wunderkind. Here's Reihan:

Politics is not always about highly technical debates concerning progressive price indexing. It is often about shaping our shared normative understandings, and, as Ryan and Brooks argue in their Wall Street Journal essay, our shared aspirations for the kind of society we’d like to live in. And on those grounds, at least, Ryan and Brooks are offering an attractive alternative to a society that looks first to the federal government to solve problems. 

Neither David Brooks nor Will Wilkinson liked their approach very much. As any reader of The Conservative Soul would see, I favor small, limited government (with a cyclically balanced budget) and foreign policy prudence as the core conservative platform. But I agree with Will that there is something lazily reflexive about Brooks-Ryan assumptions about what Americans really want:

[P]olitical scientists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza have argued that the size of a country's welfare state tends to track public opinion pretty closely. America's welfare state is less generous than Denmark's largely because Americans like it that way. If Messrs Brooks and Ryan would like congratulate Americans for liking it that way, or argue that Americans are right to like it that way, or that it would be better if Americans wanted it to be even less generous still, that would be terrific. However, it's incorrect to suggest, as they do, that the American public has been nickeled and dimed into "a system that most Americans manifestly oppose". Of course, correctness isn't the idea. The idea is to make it true by persuading enough Americans to believe it.

The great tragedy of Reagan is that he never actually persuaded Americans of this - because he never forced the real cuts in spending that should have accompanied tax cuts and forced Americans to choose between the visions of left and right. Bush II was even more irresponsible, simply borrowing to bribe voters and pay for wars, while slashing taxes. A Palin-Beck party? God help us. Or maybe they might bring this phony long argument to a conclusion.

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

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