Rick Santorum's Case for Big Government

Like many social conservatives, he insists you can't have small government without strong families and religious faith. Don't many Americans already lack those things?

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Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels stoked controversy in the conservative movement when he called for a truce on social issues so that Republicans could focus on the deficit. Values voters were outraged -- had Daniels run for president, it might have prevented him from winning the GOP primary. Less remarked upon, however, is the difficulty facing Republicans who prioritize social issues as the Tea Party exerts its influence and voters focus on the bad economy. The fact that Mike Huckabee lacks small-government bona fides surely helps explain why he decided against running. And former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum faces a variation on the same problem, despite the fact that his desire for smaller government is unimpeachable.

The federal government exists to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Santorum says, "not to take care of people." It may seem as if his position is identical to every other Republican contender. There is, however, a significant difference. Unlike libertarians, whose primary pitch is that the Constitution constrains what the federal government can do, and unlike economic conservatives, who argue that small government permits us to become more prosperous because the market is left to work its magic, social conservatives like Santorum insist that it's impossible to separate a desire for small government from a focus on social issues.

Here is Santorum clarifying his reasoning:

Of course we care about our jobs, we care about money, but we care about our families...The family is the first economy. If the family breaks down, well, government gets bigger because of the consequences of family breakdown. We see in the neighborhoods where there are no marriages and there are no two-parent families. You can't ignore the reality that faith and family are integral parts of having limited government, lower taxes, and free societies.

We are either gonna be constrained by internal controls, internal restraint on our behavior or we're gonna be restrained by external restraints -- and when people say, "We can live free and people can do whatever they want to do," show me an example of that in human history. It doesn't work.

Right or wrong, do you see why that makes some economic conservatives and libertarians nervous? The family has broken down in many American communities. Lots of kids are born out of wedlock. Fathers are locked up in jail. In some communities, fewer people attend church or subscribe to anything social conservatives would regard as faith. By Santorum's logic, these communities lack an integral requirement for limited government. In his telling, all human history suggests that they're consigned to fail due to the dearth of these internal constraints unless they get some "external restraints." So do Baltimore, Oakland, Memphis, New Haven, St. Louis, and Detroit need big government now? Or should conservatives continue trying to eliminate it?

What about the rest of America?

Though he'd never put it this way, Santorum's logic suggests that either the social indicators he bemoans start trending in a socially conservative direction, or else big government is our inescapable fate. Try selling that to a coalition of Tea Partiers, small businesspeople, and country club Republicans! They may be more socially conservative than the average voter, but they aren't about to agree that big government is the only answer if in coming years there happens to be falling religiosity, more gay marriage, a higher teen birthrate, and more absentee fathers.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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