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What exactly do big government conservatives want to conserve?

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 1, 2003

As David Brooks observed in his November 29 op-ed column for the New York Times, conservatives have come a long way in the political arena since the days of Barry Goldwater. No longer insurgents, right-of-center politicians have gotten so good at winning elections that they are now at the center of power. They predominate in the Republican Party, which is arguably the country's majority party and certainly feels free to behave as majority parties do.

The problem is that with this new power, many conservatives have begun to lose sight of what exactly it is they seek to conserve. It is not for a lack of areas where there is a need for someone to stand athwart history and yell, "Stop!" We are witnessing the redefinition – some would say abolition – of marriage and the traditional family, an erosion of American sovereignty that dovetails with a more general assault against the integrity of the nation-state, anti-Western ideology masquerading as multiculturalism and a federal welfare state that continues to balloon in size.

That last is an accomplishment, if that is the proper word for it, of our Republican president and a Republican-controlled Congress. Together, they have passed a massive entitlement expansion in the form of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit and are contemplating a pork-laden annual discretionary spending bill with a price tag of $373 billion and rising. As Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth recently asked in an article for the Washington Times, "Where is the fiscal outrage?"

"This was one of the worst years for fiscal conservatives in many moons," wrote Moore. "The federal budget grew by more than $150 billion -- more than twice as much as any year that Bill Clinton was in the White House -- and deficit spending eclipsed $300 billion, a 10-year high." And it all took place with the GOP firmly ensconced at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Big government conservatives rationalize all this by claiming the market-based reforms attached to some of this profligacy will make this all worthwhile to supporters of limited government. Fred Barnes has argued in the Weekly Standard that higher spending is the price Republicans have to pay "to gain free-market reforms and expand individual choice." Brooks argued, "In exchange for massive new spending, they [the Republicans] demand competitive reforms." These conservatives are gambling that the costly new prescription drug benefit will be offset by medical savings accounts and other doses of free-market competition injected into the Medicare system, and that increased education spending crafted in conjunction with Ted Kennedy will be offset by the requirement that schools deemed unsuccessful by the terms of the legislation will be subject to school choice and other conservative education reforms, to cite two examples.

Of course, the modern American welfare state's success as a purveyor of conservative values is, to put it charitably, quite limited, to say nothing of the unintended consequences inherent in expansions of government. A more likely result of these big-spending reforms, even if they do succeed on their own terms, is that they will embolden future administrations and Congresses to make even less responsible power grabs. But the best conservatives can hope for at this point is that their relations in the Beltway are right.

But this doesn't mean that we should become complacent about the changes in the GOP or the conservative movement. It is ironic that the people who obsess the most about politics and claim to have the greatest faith in its power to accomplish good often approach it in the most cynical, trivial manner. It's easy to begin to reduce political disputes to the sort of rivalry found in professional sports, backing your own party as you would root for your favorite team.

Thus, Brooks takes evident pleasure in the transformation of Washington from a Democratic-dominated town to an apparently Republican-dominated one, where the GOP now calls the shots and is in a position to satisfy the K-Street lobbyists. He writes about GOP governance less as if the substance mattered than with the tone of someone amused to watch a child play dress-up in adult's clothes: "The Republicans are now in the habit of winning, and are on permanent offense on all fronts. They offer tax cuts to stimulate the economy and please business. They nominate conservative judges to advance conservative social reform and satisfy religious conservatives. They fight a war on terror."

They fight a war on terror – how cute! Yet there is the little matter of principle, brought up almost as an afterthought: "The only drawback is that now, as the governing party, they have to betray some of the principles that first animated them. This week we saw dozens of conservatives, who once believed in limited government, vote for a new spending program that will cost over $2 trillion over the next 20 years."

But not to worry, Brooks assures us. Sure, the GOP will sell out, abandon its principles and undergo an "ossification process" that will insure its own undoing. That's when the Democrats will be ready to take over again as majority party. You see, it's all part of the game.

Except for one major problem: Under the rules of this game, we have two parties that once in power advocate more spending and bigger government. Republicans spend recklessly and confiscate wealth to lavish upon their constituents. The Democrats tut-tut about fiscal responsibility, but they are just playing a role. They are not interested in cutting spending – the congressional Democrats' prescription drugs proposal cost even more than the GOP's and lacked even the pretense of reform. They merely want to cancel tax cuts and raise marginal tax rates, and the concern about the deficit just happens to be a convenient weapon in their battle to do so.

This goes beyond a principled objection to big government – although it is not merely a matter of abstract principle whether the federal government operates according to the limits set by the U.S. Constitution, given the real-world implications for liberty and the rule of law. It has to do with whether we will spend this nation into bankruptcy, whether there will be a consequential political force that is willing to judge new spending by affordability rather than public appetites. Big government is only sustainable as long as our economy remains sufficiently free to grow and create wealth at a rate that will continue feeding it tax revenues.

One of Brooks' fellow conservative whiz kids, policy wonk James Pinkerton, noted that today's Republicans simply try to manage social welfare issues and sounded a hopeful note about an economic-growth solution to the problems caused by our insatiable appetite for government. Writing in National Review On-Line, he pointed out that the prescription drug benefit costs a lot of money, but hey, there is a lot of money in this country and with an 8.2 percent third-quarter growth rate there is going to be a lot more. But as Pinkerton seems to understand, there will come a point where our welfare state grows to European size. Welfare states of that size inevitably force tax rates up to self-defeating levels, slowing economic growth and undermining the government's ability to provide the benefits.

Medicare was already teetering on the edge of insolvency without this costly addition. Social Security will be next. We have already promised more in entitlements benefits than our federal government has the ability pay, unless some economic or demographic miracle occurs. We need a responsible party that will deal with these realities, rather than two parties committed to "tax, spend and elect" politics. Don't get me wrong; I'm happy the Republicans are in the majority. But I still expect them to abide by the principles that led me to vote for them in the first place.

Perhaps this is too much to ask. Our politics don't just rob Peter to pay Paul – they rob the minority party's supporters to pay the majority party's. This unseemly development would no doubt make the Founding Fathers roll in their graves. But Republican acquiescence in this state of affairs, particularly after becoming more fully the party of the right than at any point in its history, should be disquieting to many pioneering movement conservatives still living. What are today's conservatives trying to conserve?

To paraphrase Scripture, what does it profit a political party to gain majority status if it loses its republic? Conservatives worth the name are charged with preserving rather than squandering their nation's heritage for future generations. There's nothing conservative about running up bills that a future generation will have to pay.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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