Big Government, Small Government

Andrew, taking a page from Bruce Bartlett, asks:

From a conservative perspective, on spending, debt, big government, regulation, which Democrat could be worse?

As someone who opposed President Bush’s reelection in 2004, I think my bona fides as a non-supporter are sound. But it’s worth noting that, from a small government perspective, Bush has the upper hand on big government and regulation, and possibly on spending. Note that government’s share of GDP under Bush has crept up … to pre-Clinton levels. All of the Democratic candidates promise to expand entitlement programs well beyond Clinton-era levels. President Bush’s prescription drug benefit has been attacked by Democrats for not being generous enough, not for existing.

It could be the case that a Democratic president would be “better” along these dimensions because Congress would force a measure of restraint, but of course it seems very likely that Democrats will expand their majorities in the House and the Senate regardless of the outcome of the presidential election. So that can’t be it.

President Bush has failed not because he has grown government but because he proved to be a polarizing incompetent.

The “big government” vs. “small government” debate obscures deeper conflicts over the role of competition, transparency, individual responsibility, and whether government should be the main vehicle of social cooperation. For example, looking solely at government spending as a share of GDP masks the massive impact of tax subsidies. I’d be perfectly content if government spending were, say, 23 percent of GDP rather than 20 percent if that meant Americans were freer and more prosperous. The same is true if government spending were 15 percent. Pill-sweeteners, e.g., efforts that that increase salaries while eliminating tenure and other rigid work rules for teachers, can do a lot of good.