Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Big Government: It's Not Just For Liberals Anymore

I've just spent a considerable amount of time reading a very, very, very, very (I think that's enough veries) long piece at TCS Daily, by Ryan Sager. Why is it so long? It's the entire first chapter of Sager's new book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. The first chapter is a fascinating look at the tenuous marriage between social conservatives/traditionalists and small government conservatives/libertarians in the Republican party, how and when that marriage came to be, and what is making the union a difficult one now that the Republican party is moving in a "big government conservatism" direction. I find this topic particularly interesting, because my own politics are something of a marriage between traditionalism and libertarianism. Frequently, I find the two extremely complimentary, personal responsibility and freedom, hand in hand. At other times, as played out politically, I see the two impulses are at war, personal responsibility turned to a strict set of rules imposed on society at large, and freedom turned to unbridled license, defying moral standards of any kind. Sager points out that each can be useful in checking the other's more extreme tendencies.

In their less extreme forms, both these impulses are pretty strongly rooted in the idea of limited government. It has been the traditional, small government, social conservative's belief that the less intrusive the government, the less likely that government was to tell them they couldn't pray in school or teach creationism as an alternative to evolution, and that less activist and meddlesome federal courts weren't as likely to mandate legalized abortion, or other perceived social ills. The libertarian's belief was similar, but with different social aims, centering around complete personal liberty, such as decriminalizing drug use, legalized gay marriage, etc. It's an uneasy union in terms of the ultimate aims, but the commonly desired method of achieving them has often seemed to make the two congruous. Both have wanted limited government interference, and also shared similar goals in terms of strong property rights, free trade, fiscal accountability, and limited government spending. It hasn't been a perfect marriage, but like many marriages, the two have gotten along well enough when they have focused on what they have in common.

Sager analyses what is happening as the Republican party heads in more of a "compassionate conservatism" direction, i.e. big government, unafraid to spend tax-payer money to curry voter favor, and set on using its recently acquired power to move forward with a conservative social agenda. Sager questions whether the small government conservative can remain married to the Republican party if the party continues to move in the direction of wielding the big government hammer to build a socially conservative government. Indeed, one must also ask the question of social conservatives. If big, intrusive government is a negative thing when the opposing party is in power, does it cease to be a negative when the power rests in your own hands for a while? Is the small government stand based on principle, or has it merely been viewed as the way to keep progressives from the redistribution of wealth, over-regulation, and restriction of free enterprise that both social conservatives and libertarians oppose? If the concept of small government is abandoned when it is no longer necessary to hold back the progressive agenda, what happens when the reins of power are transferred back into the hands of Democrats? Does it then regain its place of value?

Not all conservatives are hypocrites. Sager spends some time on the varied pockets of Republican discontent, both libertarian and traditionalist, who really do believe in small government, and are frustrated to see their party heading off in the big government direction. It's not just the libertarians objecting; many traditionalists, too, are concerned with the party veering off into the land of big. So, the question to be addressed is, can the marriage last, can enough traditionalists and libertarians come together to refocus on what they have in common? Sager isn't writing off the possibility. Reading the article, should give you the background history, which is useful in itself, but it's going to take reading the book to see if Sager's path toward reconciliation is a feasible one. Just what I needed, one more book on my "things to read" list.