Bill Kristol and Big Government

Obviously I sympathize with many of the notes Bill Kristol strikes in his column today. But I think he's ultimately taking the argument too far, to the point where he seems to be suggesting that the modern Right can succeed by disentangling itself from "small government conservatism" entirely - which is as implausible as the notion that the GOP can succeed by ceasing to be the party of social conservatism. (In both cases, you need a baseline of idealism - about the proper role and the proper size of government, in this case - or else America's conservative party will just drift toward me-tooism.) What's needed isn't less small-government conservatism, full stop; rather, it's a smarter, better, more adaptable version of small-government conservatism - one that's more realistic about what can be accomplished in a welfare-state society, perhaps, and savvier about how to go about it, but one that doesn't give up on the central small-is-beautiful premise.

For instance, Kristol writes:

Five Republicans have won the presidency since 1932: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes. Only Reagan was even close to being a small-government conservative. And he campaigned in 1980 more as a tax-cutter and national-defense-builder-upper, and less as a small-government enthusiast in the mold of the man he had supported -- and who had lost -- in 1964, Barry Goldwater. And Reagan's record as governor and president wasn't a particularly government-slashing one.

Even the G.O.P.'s 1994 Contract With America made only vague promises to eliminate the budget deficit, and proposed no specific cuts in government programs. It focused far more on crime, taxes, welfare reform and government reform. Indeed, the "Republican Revolution" of 1995 imploded primarily because of the Republican Congress's one major small-government-type initiative -- the attempt to "cut" (i.e., restrain the growth of) Medicare. George W. Bush seemed to learn the lesson. Prior to his re-election, he proposed and signed into law popular (and, it turned out, successful) legislation, opposed by small-government conservatives, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

All true, and all important. But the fact that cutting government has proven politically difficult doesn't mean that small-government conservatives should despair, and it certainly doesn't mean that the small government tendency should be marginalized in right-wing politics. Rather, it counsels greater prudence in political salesmanship than some small-governmenteers display, and greater pragmatism and savvy about policy - because when the small government spirit is joined to prudence and savvy, it can actually accomplish quite a bit. As I wrote upon the death of William F. Buckley, the story of the modern GOP is only a story of small-government defeats if you define victory in absolutist terms:

Around the time that Buckley founded National Review, the federal government's share of GDP had been rising steadily for more than thirty years, from 3 percent in 1925 to 18.8 percent in 1962. In the Sixties and early Seventies, it seemed extremely plausible that the United States was a glide path to European-style social democracy. Then came the conservative ascendancy - and thirty years later, in 2001, government's share of GDP stood at ... 18.4 percent of GDP. (It's inched up somewhat, of course, under George W. Bush.) Now obviously there are a variety of reasons why the size of government stopped rising after the Seventies, but far from least among them is the influence that Buckley-style small-government conservatism has wielded over public policy lo these many years. (And remember that he promised to stop history, not to roll it back.)

And a philosophy of small government, properly understood, extends well beyond the immediate size of the government's annual budget to include the hidden welfare state of mandates and regulation - all those corvées that Reihan likes to talk about. Here the small-government Right has gained considerable ground over the period Kristol's talking about; here, too, there are plenty of important arguments conservatives can make that don't require the political suicide involved in a frontal assault on Medicare.

Oh, and about Medicare ... Come what may, some sort of serious small-government thinking is going to be required as Republicans and Democrats alike struggle with the looming entitlement crunch.  Again, this will require prudence and savvy and creativity, and it may require a kind of right-wing class warfare that conservatives are currently uncomfortable with (though we can learn!). But nothing good will come of the entitlement mess for the Right if the GOP becomes indifferent to small-government aspirations and arguments.

Then we come to Kristol's conclusion:

So: If you're a small-government conservative, you'll tend to oppose the bailouts, period. If you more or less accept big government, you'll be open to the government's stepping in to save the financial system, or the auto industry. But you'll tend to favor those policies -- universal tax cuts, offering everyone a chance to refinance his mortgage, relieving auto makers of burdensome regulations -- that, consistent with conservative principles, don't reward irresponsible behavior and don't politicize markets.

Similarly, if you're against big government, you'll oppose a huge public works stimulus package. If you think some government action is inevitable, you might instead point out that the most unambiguous public good is national defense. You might then suggest spending a good chunk of the stimulus on national security -- directing dollars to much-needed and underfunded defense procurement rather than to fanciful green technologies, making sure funds are available for the needed expansion of the Army and Marines before rushing to create make-work civilian jobs. Obama wants to spend much of the stimulus on transportation infrastructure and schools. Fine, but lots of schools and airports seem to me to have been refurbished more recently and more generously than military bases I've visited.

Again, I agree with parts of this. But the first paragraph's claims are too sweeping (for one thing, a smart small-government conservatism should be able to distinguish more explicitly than Kristol does between necessary bailouts and unnecessary ones - which is why the prospect of the auto bailout has been greeted very differently among the smartest libertarian bloggers than the financial bailout was), and the second paragraph's claims are ... well, frustrating is a word that springs to mind.

Too often, when domestic-policy debates come up, conservatives are far too eager to change the subject: The public says education; the Right say "let's talk about capital-gains tax cuts." The public says health care; the Right says "let's talk about terrorism." The public says infrastructure; the Right says ... "let's refurbish military bases"?? Apparently so.

There are very, very good reasons to think that the United States has a serious problem with aging transportation infrastructure, which happens to be an area where government by necessity has a substantial role to play. It would behoove conservatives, then, to join the debate over how to modernize our infrastructure - as, to their credit, some are - rather than just ceding the field completely to Barack Obama. Whereas trying to turn a conversation about highways, roads and rail into an conversation about why we need to spend more money on the military seems like a good way to convince Americans that the Right is pretty much only interested in talking about warfare and taxation, no matter what else happens to be on the country's mind.

Update: See Yuval in Kristol's defense.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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