Will The Republicans Rediscover Limited Government?

The CATO Institute is running another great installment of their Cato Unbound online symposia, this time leading off with a provocative essay by David Frum on the Republican abrogation of their limited-government principles:

The state is growing again—and it is preprogrammed to carry on growing. Health spending will rise, pension spending will rise, and taxes will rise.

Now I still continue to hope that the Republican party will lean against these trends. But there’s a big difference between being the party of less government and a party of small government. It’s one thing to try to slow down opponents as they try to enact their vision of society into law. It’s a very different thing to have a vision of one’s own.

And the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.

I hope that Frum is wrong, but fear he is right.

Let’s face it, Americans have an addiction to Big Government – the costs are largely transparent to them. So what if regulations cost this country tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity? Those costs never appear on a ledger, they never appear in the lives of everyday Americans. People don’t react to theory, they react to what they see and experience. Republicans have been successful in fighting for lower taxes because the average Joe Sixpack and Jane Soccer Mom can see with every paycheck what the government takes out. People don’t see the slowing of economic growth that comes with the pervasive intrusion of the state into every facet of our lives.

Frum notes three reasons why small government conservatives can’t do much to change that status quo: one, they’re a minority in the Republican Party, second, the Republican leadership is tightly in the grip of business interests, and finally, it would require them to repudiate much of the Bush Administration’s economic legacy. On all those accounts, Frum is sadly right. The Republican Party has lost touch with its Reaganite roots when it comes to fiscal matters. The Bush Administration and the Republican-led Congress have spend like drunken sailors – except drunken sailors tend to spend their own money rather than someone else’s.

Does that mean we’re damned to eternal fiscal irresponsibility and government that grows to consume everything? Are we all merrily skipping down the yellow brick road to serfdom?

Sooner or later the costs of government become simply too large to ignore. Already there are some promising signs of a pushback against pork. Again, people’s political behavior is influence predominantly by what they experience themselves. If fiscal conservatives want to make an impact, this can’t be a discussion of policy. Policy is wonderfully interesting for policy wonks like the audience of this blog and it’s author. It doesn’t mean a thing to the American electorate. People don’t react to even the most impassioned pleas for the theoretical good of “limited government.” We may understand the value of limited government, but that won’t lead to the sort of mass political movement that can shape policy.

Fiscal conservatives need to make the value of limited government apparent to the people. How does the ever-expanding reach of government effect the average voter? Find the answer to that, and you can start to build a movement. Once you have a movement, then you can start to change the direction of the Republican Party. Expecting a politician to do something as audacious as lead is simply too much to expect in an era of focus groups and spot polling.

The GOP missed the boat on Social Security once – the right talked about the long-term fiscal solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund. The AARP and other interest groups scared the hell out of seniors that they were going to lose their benefits. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which approach will generate the most political momentum. What the GOP needed to do is not surrender the issue, but turn it into a pocketbook issue. People don’t care about budgetary problems 20 years down the road – they care about the things that effect them now. The GOP should have made it quite clear that the promise of Social Security was a sham and that the money that every worker pays into Social Security could be gone in an instant – and that the only way to truly put Social Security into a “lockbox” is to give the individual control.

People want to have control over their lives. They don’t want people to make decisions for you. Fiscal conservatism can have a place in the world of retail politics – it’s all a question of political will.

Frum is right, the current institutional makeup of the Republican Party precludes a renaissance of Reaganite limited government – which is why fiscal conservatives need to subvert the political establishment. Projects like Porkbusters are a start, but that’s not enough to start a mass movement. What needs to happen is an organized campaign to highlight the true personal costs of big government. People don’t respond to facts and figures, they respond to other people. Only once you have that mass movement started will the political culture start adapting to meet their demands.

Is that a realistic scenario? Possibly, but it’s going to require political will, money, and coordination. If the Republicans are to ever return to the true spirit of their party, the impetus must come from the grass roots. The only way to change the course of this party will come from the ground up, and that means making it very clear that the voting behavior of Republican voters will be heavily influenced by a true commitment to fiscal responsibility. It doesn’t take a majority of Republicans to do that, it just takes one more vote than the margin of victory.

There are plenty of Republicans who are upset with the fiscal direction this country has taken – and if they’re willing to speak out and demand more then false obeisance from the GOP, it could make a difference in returning the party to the values it ostensibly stands for.

UPDATE: ABC News has a piece on the rising political cost of pork-barrel spending.

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