The Limits of Government

Brink Lindsey writes:

Ross is correct that many of Bush’s greatest misses (prescription drug benefit, steel tariffs, farm bill, energy bill, transportation bill, McCain-Feingold) should be chalked up to vote-buying expediency rather than any considered Hamiltonian governing philosophy. However, I think a good argument can be made that the explicit abandonment of any principled commitment to limited government greatly facilitated this binge of corruption.

The strongest case for strict limits on what government can do isn’t that it’s theoretically impossible for government to exceed those limits to good effect. Rather, government’s activities should be circumscribed because, in the real world, they will almost never be guided by dainty theoretical considerations. Instead, political expediency, as determined by unprincipled hacks, will usually carry the day. And the Bush administration’s sorry record now serves as People’s Exhibit A in that case.

The point is well taken, and I really, really don't want to suggest, in my ongoing arguments with small-government conservatives, that I'm a partisan of the "when someone's hurting, the government has got to move" school of thought. (Call it "Gersonism," perhaps.) For "Hamiltonian conservatives" - or Sam's Club Republicans, or just-plain neoconservatives, or whatever you want to call the non-libertarian domestic policy Right - one of the big lessons of the Bush years has to be that you can't just wash your hands of the principle of limited government, as too often this Administration has seemed to do, and expect the results to be pretty. The siren song of statism is just too strong: You need the partisans of limited-government looking over the shoulder of every bill and policy proposal, asking "is this necessary? is this something the government ought to be doing?"

But by the same token, a limited-government libertarianism is going to be utterly marginal in American life unless it weds itself to a more pragmatic politics, and accepts reforming the welfare state in lieu of abolishing it entirely. And for that marriage to work, you need ideas for how to reform the welfare state, and what direction to reform it in, as well as ideas for how to shrink it. That's the business that Reihan and I are trying to be in, and it's a business that benefits enormously from an ongoing libertarian critique, the better winnow the (probably rare) good ideas from the chaff. What I don't welcome, though, and what I think is a dead end for the Right, is the notion that the big-government failures of the Bush years mean that the GOP needs to become more libertarian, full stop, end of the story. That way lies the same ditch that the Gingrich revolutionaries ran themselves into - though I should note that Lindsey has a sharp point on that front as well:

... fairly or not, Ross is going to have to resign himself to having the Bush record thrown in his face by limited-government conservatives. And to the fact that this tactic is going to be pretty effective.

And if you ask me, this outcome isn’t that unfair. After all, for years big-government conservatives have pointed to the government-shutdown debacle of 1995 as proof positive that the limited-government agenda was doomed, doomed, doomed for all time ... So if anti-libertarians can make such hay out of one fleeting episode, aren’t libertarians justified in returning the favor on the basis of six solid years (and counting) of virtually nonstop blunders?

Ouch. (I'm reminded of David Brooks' remark that "sometimes in my dark moments, I think [Bush is] 'The Manchurian Candidate' designed to discredit all the ideas I believe in.") Though of course, as Brink admits - and as Reihan suggests in this exchange with Julian Sanchez - Bush has managed to taint his share of libertarian ideas as well. It's been a busy six years ...