Posted: May 20, 2002
"The era of big government is over." So President Bill Clinton assured us only a few years ago, in the full flush of retreat after the 1994 elections, which had handed over control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years.
Now we begin to hear a contrary theme, issuing not from liberals but from conservative thinkers. "The great free-market revolution that began with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan has finally reached its point of reversal," writes Francis Fukuyama. "The conservatism that defined itself in reaction against the New Deal — minimal government conservatism — is dead," chimes in George Will. The quotable Marshall Wittman, who works at the Hudson Institute, argues that conservatism now "is headed in an entirely different direction" from its 1994 agenda of "eliminating agencies and scaling back government." "We are," he declares, "seeing the beginnings of big-government conservatism."
American conservatism has reached a turning point. For decades, the conservative movement was a coalition of traditionalists, neoconservatives, and libertarians, united by their antipathy to Soviet Communism and domestic radicalism. But as our common enemies have faded, so has our sense of purpose and identity. The brave movement that defined itself largely (though never completely) by what it was against now has to decide what it is for.
But this great, exhilarating challenge shouldn't be permitted to subside into a weary endorsement of the status quo. Acquiescing in the present size, scope, and ambition of the federal government would be the worst sort of fatalism masquerading as realism. September 11's attacks settled nothing on this score, except perhaps to discredit the most extreme forms of libertarian anti-statism. Wartime is, so The Federalist argued, always friendly to the national government because it is an occasion that calls for all of constitutional government's proper energy — especially executive-branch energy. War also elicits patriotism, which confirms that man is not by nature libertarian.
This particular war, however, has also forced the reopening of questions long considered unfashionable or closed. One is the question of good and evil, which President Bush has ringingly and rightly emphasized in his speeches. Another is the question of progress. The tallest modern buildings can be toppled by resolute men who despise, but are willing to use, technology for evil purposes. If the 20th century did not teach us this lesson, then the 21st century seems determined to: progress is not inevitable, and all material, political, and technological change must be measured by moral standards that are not themselves a product of change.
Liberals as well as conservatives feel the new urgency of these questions. But conservatives are peculiarly poised to take advantage of them as an occasion to rethink the goodness or badness of the modern state and to doubt its claims to inevitability. It is true that, in wartime, domestic political reforms usually take a back seat to foreign policy. But woe unto the political movement that does not prepare for the vigorous resumption of domestic politics when the war is over or winding down. It was after World War II that full-blown socialism came to Britain. It was during the Vietnam War's shameful endgame (helped along by Watergate: foreign policy does not always end at the water's edge) that a liberal Congress enacted campaign-finance reforms, gutted the intelligence services, and tried to curtail the president's budgetary and war powers.
Fukuyama and Will are correct that the conservatives' and especially the Republicans' fight against Big Government was faltering long before September 11. Nonetheless, this doesn't prove that conservatives lack a cogent criticism of the modern state, much less that they don't need one. It proves only that the common libertarian critique, rooted in amoral freedom and the economist's view of human nature, has run its course. Libertarianism of this sort may continue to offer conservatives useful arguments but can no longer set the tone and agenda for our criticism of the modern state.
When conservatism was a beleaguered coalition, it was natural for libertarians to take the lead on this front, even as traditionalists tended to provide the arguments against the new morality (i.e., the old immorality) and its angels and archangels on the federal courts. But if conservatism is to remain vital, it must do better. The old libertarian bumper sticker captures the problem nicely: "There's no government like no government." Americans are not anarchists, and reject even anarchism's romance. So did the Founders, who stood for moral freedom and thus for limited, republican government. For them — and for us, if we would learn from them — Big Government is bad not so much because it is big and costly but because it is disordered and, in principle, unlimited.
The last thing America needs is for conservatives to make their peace with bad government. Better to look forward to a more principled and patriotic indictment of it as an insult to our rights, an offense against our equality, and a threat to our Constitution.