The Limits of Limited Government

A few days ago, in response to a post by Jim Manzi, multi-blog super-commenter Freddie wrote:

This is my constant frustration. Conservatives constantly make overtures towards fiscal responsiblity, they constantly claim to want to cut taxes— but they have no specific cuts in spending in mind. And do you know why? Because the conservative rank and file has come to defend Medicare, social security and the prescription medicines benefit as vociferously as liberals do.

This is true in many ways, but the reasons for this problem are at least somewhat more complicated than is often suggested.

Broadly speaking, the American right has three main forces: voters (self explanatory), conservative advocates (encompassing ideological journalists, think-tankers, and other professional and semi-professional advocates of various rightward ideas), and Republicans in government (everything from Congressional representatives and staffers to appointed officials and bureaucrats). The interplay and tension between these groups accounts for much of the dissonance between conservative rhetoric and policy making.

On the one hand, you have voters. Most voters tend to be fairly disengaged from politics, at least in comparison to political professionals. They are rationally ignorant about most policy-making. They have some sense about what they want from the government and what they like in elected officials, and they vote accordingly. Typically, they prefer firmness and certainty of position from their politicians, but they do not always display such characteristics themselves. So it’s not always clear what they stand for, and often enough, there’s a significant, unreconciled gap between ideology and voting preference. Because of their distance and disengagement, as well as their subsequent lack of forceful, coherent advocacy for singular causes and policies, they tend to express their voice in Washington as something of a loud din — always heard, but rarely clear and with few distinguishable, particular notions.

On the other hand, you have the political professional class. This group is fairly small, but it has outsized influence in Washington due to its relative clarity and forcefulness, as well as its proximity to law-making. If the voting public is a loud din, these are a couple of practiced speakers with soapboxes and megaphones.

In the middle are the politicians, at once trying to please the professional advocates who surround them and find ways to satisfy the din. The result, typically, is extremely forceful rhetoric, deployed to please the professionals and the advocates, and relatively weak, compromised action.

Those pointing out the discrepancy between rhetoric and action on the right tend to muddy the lines between these groups. They ignore that the right’s elected officials speak to and for different groups at different times. They point to the megaphones wielded by professional political advocates and the lack of follow through from politicians seeking to appease the voters. The fact of the matter is that most professional advocates who call for drastic reductions in government aren’t in any way attached to the country’s various entitlements and would be glad to cut them substantially. And while it would be nice to think that politicians might someday match their actions with their rhetoric, it seems unlikely given the diversity of the groups they are constantly forced to please. This, rather than pure cynicism, is what results in the sort of contradictions that Freddie’s noticing.

Increasingly, my sense, in broad terms, is that Freddie is right, and that the realities of American politics may mean that fighting for limited government in the strictest sense may be a doomed effort. I think more energy should probably be devoted by the limited government right to figuring out how to work within the larger-government framework we seem to be stuck with for the time being. But I also think that, doomed as they may be, the groups who continue to push for a stringently defined limited government ethos — the sort of full-blooded libertarianism that, yes, I support — serve as a valuable check on the excesses of government. It’s true that they’re responsible for the chasm between policy and action that currently exists on the right, but whatever problems that sometimes brings, I’m convinced the country is better for it.