The Claremont Institute’s William Voegeli asks that question in today’s Wall Street Journal.
As Voegeli points out, the fight against big government achieved it’s greatest political victory 27 years ago with the election of Ronald Reagan, and yet, things haven’t changed all that much:
A quarter century ago president Ronald Reagan declared in his first inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. . . . It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people.” In 1981, the year of that speech, the federal government spent $678 billion; in 2006, it spent $2,655 billion. Adjust that 292% increase for inflation, and the federal government is still spending 84% more than it did when Reagan became president–in a country whose population has grown by only 30%.
To put the point another way, if per capita spending after 1980 had grown at the rate of inflation, federal outlays would have been $1,883 billion in 2006 instead of $2,655 billion. The 41% increase from 1981 to 2006 is considerably lower than the 94% increase in real per capita spending in the previous 25 years, from 1956 to 1981. In the past two decades, the federal establishment grew steadily, rather than dramatically. Nonetheless, Reagan’s pledge to curb the government’s size and influence has hardly been fulfilled. Inflation-adjusted federal spending increased in every year but two over the past 26 years.
And, as he notes, most of that growth has been in what could be called the middle-class welfare state:
The engine driving the growth of government has been “human resources”–the Office of Management and Budget’s category that includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with other programs for health, education, veterans and income security. Spending on human resources in 1981 was $362 billion, slightly more than half (53.4%) of all federal outlays. That proportion declined to slightly less than half (49.7%) by the time Reagan left office in 1989. But it turns out there was a peace dividend after the fall of the Berlin Wall: National defense spending dropped from 26.5% of federal outlays in 1989 to 16.1% in 1999. That savings–a tenth of the budget–migrated to human resources, where spending climbed to 60% of outlays by 1995. The category has stayed above that level ever since, reaching almost two-thirds of federal spending (65.6%) and 13.1% of GDP in 2003.
And this has occurred over a quarter century in which Republicans breaching the gospel of limited government have occupied the White House for about 19 years, and have controlled one or both houses of Congress for all but eight years (1986-94, when Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress).
Part of the explanation for this turn of events is political. Reagan never really had a working majority in either House of Congress that would have supported anything constituting significant cutbacks in programs like Medicare or supported Social Security reform. The Republicans had control of Congress during the last six years of the Clinton Administration but were, without fail, out maneuvered at every turn by the Clinton White House — to the point where even a program like welfare reform was spun as a Bill Clinton idea. And George Bush never bothered to do anything with his Congressional majorities other than increase spending at a rate faster than LBJ and decrease civil liberties.
In response, the limited government crowd has acted as if it doesn’t know what to do. Some conservatives, most notably people like George Will have argued that the time for arguing against the welfare state is over and that the limited-government argument should limit itself to fighting the welfare state on the margins — arguing against this idea or that rather than fighting the beast as a whole.
That argument is doomed to fail. The Democrats succeed when they talk about things like nationalized health care, $ 5,000 bonds for babies, and further expansion of the state because their rhetoric plays into a sense of entitlement that has become a part of the American political landscape. Arguing about numbers isn’t going to convince them that they aren’t entitled to it.
As Voegeli notes, the argument against the state needs to be broader than that:
It makes sense for conservatives to attack liberalism where it is weakest, rather than where it is strongest. Liberals sell the welfare state one brick at a time, deflecting inquiries about the size and cost of the palace they’re building. Citizens are encouraged to regard the government as a rich uncle, who needs constant hectoring to become ever more generous. Conservatives need to make the macro-question the central one, and to insist that limited government is inseparable from self-government. To govern is to choose. To deliberate about the legitimate and desirable extent of the welfare state presupposes that we the people should choose the size and nature of government programs, rather than have them be chosen for us by entitlements misconstrued as inviolable rights.
No political strategy can guarantee success. Under no foreseeable set of circumstances will liberals fear giving voters their spiel: We want the government to give things to you and do things for you. Conservatives can only reply that single-entry bookkeeping doesn’t work; every benefit the government confers will correspond to a burden it has to impose. A government that respects citizens as adults will level with them about the benefits and the costs. A conservatism that labors to reverse liberalism’s displacement of Americans’ rights as citizens with their “rights” as welfare recipients may not achieve victory, but it will at least deserve it.
When candidates are willing to talk to the American people like that, then we’ll know that the fight against big government has just begun.