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It takes a conservative – If only we could agree what that means

By W. James Antle III
web posted September 19, 2005

Big government conservatism, anyone?

Explaining the decision to add the entire $62.3 billion cost of two post-Katrina hurricane-relief bills to the $331 billion deficit rather than seek offsetting spending cuts, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) declared "ongoing victory" in the battle to bring the federal budget under control.

DeLay: Hey big spender...
DeLay: Hey big spender...

According to the Washington Times, DeLay claims there is just no more fat left to cut. This despite the 6,371 pork-barrel projects in this year's swollen transportation bill. Or the $24.5 billion the federal government spent in 2003 that it couldn't account for. The Heritage Foundation's Brian Reidl notes that $154 billion was appropriated for programs a White House review deemed ineffective or unable to demonstrate results. Citizens Against Government Waste plans to release a list of recommended spending cuts totaling $2 trillion over five years.

And DeLay, mind you, is one of the most consistently conservative members of the Republican congressional leadership.

The GOP is ostensibly the party of low taxes and less government, but even many conservative Republicans today campaign like Barry Goldwater only to outspend Bill Clinton. George W. Bush has presided over the biggest inflation-adjusted increase in federal spending since Lyndon Johnson. Even excluding defense and homeland-security expenditures, he is the biggest-spending president in 30 years.

Political power has dampened the right's traditional anti-statism. It is more difficult for rank-and-file conservatives to become exercised over Washington's antics when Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. Many GOP politicians believe the proper role of a majority party is to govern more, not less. The bureaucracies and mandates that seemed so meddlesome to them back in 1994 look a whole lot more attractive now that they get to handle the levers.

Some detect a change in the character of conservatism itself. Jonathan Rauch, in a thoughtful National Journal column reposted on Reason's website, concludes that the right has veered away from individualism into a new form of collectivism.

Rauch centers his case on Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-Penn.) new book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. Just as Goldwater's landmark Conscience of a Conservative repudiated the "dynamic conservatism" of Dwight Eisenhower, Rauch claims It Takes a Family represents a break from the anti-government conservatism of Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Instead of Goldwater's "The conservative's first concern is: Are we maximizing freedom?" and Reagan's "Government is the problem, not the solution," Santorum rails against individual autonomy unmoored from any larger moral purpose.

"Goldwater and Reagan, and Madison and Jefferson, were saying that if you restrain government, you will strengthen society and foster virtue," writes Rauch. "Santorum is saying something more like the reverse: If you shore up the family, you will strengthen the social fabric and ultimately reduce dependence on government."

There is more to this than the usual tendency to blame social conservatives for the right's flagging commitment to limited government. Santorum, like most major Republican politicians today, is too eager to use government in service of conservative ends. Worse, the senator often fails to see that expanded federal power can crowd out the family and civil society just as surely as government spending crowds out private investment.

But Rauch oversimplifies conservatism. There's more to the modern right than Hayek – there's also Kirk and Nisbet. Goldwater's was a particularly libertarian strain of conservatism. But in many respects, even Reagan represented a break from Goldwater.

It's not just the fact that Reagan was a pro-life social conservative while Goldwater was not. Goldwater said things like: "I have little interest in streamlining government, or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom." Reagan, while a persistent critic of overweening government, did not talk like that. His criticisms of government were more nuanced, which is perhaps why he, unlike Goldwater, was able to be elected.

Most conservatives would not be surprised to hear Santorum label the family the most fundamental social unit rather than the individual, a sentiment Rauch decries as "incompatible" with the "individual-rights tradition of modern conservatism." And the idea of freedom as a means rather than an end in itself is hardly without a conservative pedigree that predates It Takes a Family and Santorum's political career.

Attempts to balance liberty and virtue date back to the American founding and have been a constant feature of modern American conservatism. Frank Meyer, the late National Review senior editor, argued that libertarianism and traditionalism were complementary emphases within a larger conservative idiom. In his fusionist formulation, he observed that "truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny."

There is no tension between support for limited government and a vigorous defense of the "little platoons" of family and civil society. The problem comes in when putative conservatives confuse government activism for vibrant community life. The family isn't just another government program.

The profligacy of the Republican-dominated federal government demonstrates that many Beltway conservatives don't get this. But then again, neither do some of their libertarian-leaning critics.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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