Friday, August 15, 2003

Rights and Reason: A 'Big Government Conservatism'

In today's Wall Street Journal Fred Barnes calls President Bush a "big government conservative" and writes the following:

The essence of Mr. Bush's big government conservatism is a trade-off. To gain free-market reforms and expand individual choice, he's willing to broaden programs and increase spending. Thus his aim in proposing to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare is to reform the entire health-care system for seniors. True, the drug benefit would be the biggest new entitlement in 40 years. But if paired with reforms that lure seniors away from Medicare and into private health insurance, Mr. Bush sees the benefit as an affordable (and very popular) price to pay. Mr. Bush earlier wanted to go further, requiring seniors to switch to private health insurance to be eligible for the drug benefit. He dropped the requirement when queasy congressional Republicans balked. Now it's uncertain whether Congress will pass a Medicare bill with sufficient market incentives to justify Mr. Bush's approval. Should he sign a measure without significant reforms, he won't be acting as a big government conservative.

On education, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kennedy joined to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. Its only real reform was a mandate for states to test student achievement on the basis of federal standards. Many conservatives, including some on the president's staff, felt this wasn't sufficient reform to warrant boosting the federal share of education spending. Still, Mr. Kennedy and other liberals aren't happy either. They'd expected even more spending.

When I coined the phrase "big government conservative" years ago, I had certain traits in mind. Mr. Bush has all of them. First, he's realistic. He understands why Mr. Reagan failed to reduce the size of the federal government and why Newt Gingrich and the GOP revolutionaries failed as well. The reason: People like big government so long as it's not a huge drag on the economy. So Mr. Bush abandoned the all-but-hopeless fight that Mr. Reagan and conservatives on Capitol Hill had waged to jettison the Department of Education. Instead, he's opted to infuse the department with conservative goals.

A second trait is a programmatic bent. Big government conservatives prefer to be in favor of things because that puts them on the political offensive. Promoting spending cuts/minimalist government doesn't do that. Mr. Bush has famously defined himself as a compassionate conservative with a positive agenda. Almost by definition, this makes him a big government conservative. His most ambitious program is his faith-based initiative. It would use government funds to expand social programs run by religious organizations. Many of them have been effective in fighting drug/alcohol addiction and helping lift people out of poverty. So far, the initiative has had only a small impact, its scope limited by Congress.

Another trait is a far more benign view of government than traditional conservatives have. Big government conservatives are favorably disposed toward what neoconservative Irving Kristol has called a "conservative welfare state." (Neocons tend to be big government conservatives.) This means they support transfer payments that have a neutral or beneficial effect (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) and oppose those that subsidize bad behavior (welfare). Mr. Bush wants to reform Social Security and Medicare but not shrink either.

Mr. Bush has never put a name on his political philosophy, though he once joked that it was based on the premise that you could fool some of the people all of the time and he intended to concentrate on those people. An aide characterized Bushism as "an activist, reforming conservatism that recognizes it's sometimes necessary to use the power of the government to change the status quo." I doubt that Mr. Bush would put it that way, but at least it distinguishes him from the ordinary run of conservatives. He's a different breed.
So President Bush has never put a name on his political philosophy. I will. It’s pragmatism. Bush (and Barnes) think it’s hopeless to defeat the advocates of state power, so if you can’t beat them, join them. How uninspired. This from two champions—or semi-champions—of free enterprise.

Trouble is, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t have big government and freedom from big government simultaneously. Yet Bush (and Barnes) seem to think otherwise, and that they are "realistic" for thinking so.

The conservatives do not deserve the mantle of defenders of capitalism. More than anyone, it is the conservatives who represent the largest threat to capitalism—it is only though their half-hearted and inconsistent defense of capitalism and individual rights that capitalism’s enemies have power.

Not all of us are so easily disarmed, or so easily dissuaded, as the conservatives. It is not hard to defend individual rights—if you know how to argue. But frankly, where Objectivism fails is not the strength of its principles, but in the faint tone its adherents make as they state their case to the world.

Some think that Atlas Shrugged alone is enough to change the world. As powerful a force as Atlas can be, the history of the past 46 years shows us that it is not enough. If America—and the world are to change, we need more.

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