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Monday, December 29, 2008
By Steven L. Taylor

In the LAT today, Richard Viguerie argues that The GOP must reject Big Government.

The column is ultimately a fairly typical piece about how big government conservatives have ruined the GOP and that the faithful must gird themselves for a fight against “Chicagoism” (meaning, Obama tainted by guilt-by-association with Blagojevich and the suggestion that all politicians from Chicago are, by definition, corrupt).

However, Viguerie, like many of his fellow travelers, miss the point of where the debate really needs to be. Constantly re-casting this discussion in the language of the early 1980s is not the appropriate route to take politically, nor it is an approach that is salient to the current era policy-wise. “Big government” can mean a lot of things: high taxes, big budgets, lots of power in the hands of the state, heavy regulation, etc. However, part of the problem is that many who currently speak frequently of “big government” really never define what they are talking about, because the phrase is more of a slogan than a meaningful philosophical or policy-oriented notion. Really, it is a fairly empty set of words, as it is difficult to have an intelligent conversation about the US government and not acknowledge that it is a) pretty darn big, b) had been such for a rather long time, and c) isn’t going to shrink anytime soon.

As I have noted before, the Reagan approach to the tax code won decades ago: we are not going back to extremely high top income tax brackets. That fight is over, and the failure of the GOP (as evidenced in the last campaign) to recognize this fact is part of their problem. While there are arguments to be made that moving the top marginal rate from 35% to 39.5% shouldn’t occur, to pretend like it is the same fight that Reagan fought in the early 1980s over top marginal rates of 70% is simply foolish.

Now, while the Reagan approach to the income tax code appears to be ingrained in current public policy, the bottom line is that so, too, the basic welfare state is ingrained in our public policy as well. This isn’t going away, and it is likely to expand over time. This creates serious fiscal policy problems, but it can’t be wished away. Beyond the tax code, however, it really is a stretch to suggest that, at the end of the day, the Reagan era was one of “small government.” It is time the GOP recognize this fact.

In terms of deregulation, this is little doubt that given the current financial crisis, re-regulation sentiments are growing in strength, and indeed, it is hard for even free marketeers to say that perhaps some tinkering in this area isn’t needed.

One of the areas that Viguerie and his camp ignore in terms of “small government” is the increasing ability of the central state to intrude on our private lives, and well as the increase in power of the executive in way that damages our democracy. This is a more pernicious problem than most “small government” conservatives admit, and indeed, many who forcefully criticize fiscal policy aspects of “big government” are frequently boosters of an ever-growing security state that will “keep us safe” replete with an executive that ignores Congress when it feels like it. To me this is far more antithetical to the notion of “small government” than any amount of welfare spending could ever be.

Beyond any of that, conservatives need an intellectual re-assessment, as they are fooling themselves if they think that the government is going to shrink. We have a big government because we have a big country, with a big economy and are a major power in world. The small federal government of the mid-19th Century isn’t coming back, and if it did, I am betting even the most stringent supporter of that notion would find themselves far less happy with that outcome than their fantasies would predict.

This may sound somewhat contradictory, but we need a more forward-looking conservatism, or, at least, a more forward-looking center-right in this country. What we seem to have now is more reactionary and fantastical: hoping for the restoration of past that never really existed in the first place.

One thing is for certain: given the current economic crisis, there is going to be a great deal of spending by the central government in the coming year (to go along with the massive spending from this year). As such, to spend too much time railing against “big government” is an exercise in empty sloganeering that will lead one to being left out of the more serious debates that need to be had.

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4 Responses to “On “Big Government””

  1. MSS Says:

    “Viguerie, like many of his fellow travelers”

    Ooh! I like that phrasing!

    I’ll say what I always say about these sterile old debates:

    1. I will believe that the Republican party, and self-styled ‘conservatives’ more generally, are serious about “small government” when they begin to advocate major downsizing of the war establishment; and,

    2.There are many ways in which “big government” is a necessary condition for a functioning democracy and a prosperous society-social security, health care, environmental protection, and many more.

    In other words, it is not the “size” of government, per se, but what it does, and on whose behalf. And in some areas it needs to be a good deal “bigger” at the same time as it needs to be smaller in others.

    And that the debate is yet to be couched in such terms, even in the best year for Democrats in many decades, indeed shows just how ideologically hegemonic Viguerie and his band of fellow travelers remain.

  2. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Bush’s Legacy and “Big Government” Says:

    [...] I noted a piece about the small v. big government debate (such as it is). I noted then that a lot of “small [...]

  3. mbailey Says:

    i think both parties would be better served by returning more thoughtfully to a sense of the public good and efficacy.

    which programs serve many people, and which programs and regulations work.

    and then being responsible and simply paying for the dang things.

    of course this would take the politics out of it, so it’s impossible.

  4. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:


    It could, at least, reconfigure politics, as there are legitimate disagreements over the efficacy of policy (AFDC v. TANF comes to mind). Still, I take the point.

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