In 1996, in a cynical gesture to secure his re-election, President Bill Clinton declared that “the era of Big Government is over.” In November 2011, the same Bill Clinton published a manifesto promoting Big Government, and hailing it as the key to a just and caring and prosperous America. This was also a campaign ploy, part of a massive effort by progressives to justify Barack Obama’s multi-trillion-dollar spending spree and promote his re-election. Ignoring the fact that Obama’s “stimulus” programs had produced anemic results for everyone except his political cronies and campaign bundlers, progressives argued that even bigger government programs were required for a “strong economy” and a healthy society. Only social reactionaries and the willfully blind would deny it, they said.
Democrats have pursued the agenda of ever-more capacious government troughs since the New Deal, and have presented it as a “progressive solution” to America’s social problems. They have pursued the chimera to the point where their vision is now indistinguishable from the “democratic socialisms” of Europe, which have brought that continent to the brink of economic ruin. Why is the belief in big government the equivalent of religious faith among political “progressives”? Because money is power, and progressives want power to change the world and reshape it to their desires, which they justify as “social justice.”
In the view of progressives, there are “two Americas,” and this is a problem that only an ever-expanding state can solve. As progressives see it, there is the America of the rich and powerful on the one hand, and there is the America of the poor and powerless on the other; and the poor and the powerless have only progressives and progressive government to speak for them and act in their behalf.
An extreme – not to say absurd -- version of this fantasy of “two Americas” has been given expression by the radicals of the progressive movement as the 1% and the 99%. According to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement:
- the impoverished 99% are struggling to get by, while the wealthy 1% feed off their misery;
- residing in the America of the 99% are those who vote for Democrats, and are liberal, and reasonable, and above all caring;
- on the other side are the 1% -- conservative and selfish Republicans whose “anti-government obsessions” threaten the very existence of those whose only hope is a state that looks after them, redistributes wealth, and provides the justice that the free market denies.
Progressive Americans are believers that “government can solve social problems, or at least mitigate them,” as Bill Clinto wrote in his aforementioned book. According to Clinton, progressives “focus more on what works,” and rely less on “ideological prejudice,” than their adversaries. Opposing these purportedly compassionate people of the left are the scrooges of the right who want to “strangle” government and protect their own “privilege.” Thus we are told that progressives are the people who care about the victims of conservative selfishness; that all caring Americans are part of the the crusade to tax the comfortable and use their money to comfort the afflicted—the “99%” who have no recourse but government to help them.
This moral indictment of conservatives is the staple of left-wing politics and the template of all progressive campaigns. Faced with this indictment, conservatives always seem to be on the defensive and perennially tongue-tied. It would be difficult in the best of circumstances to deny a charitable offering when there is so much misery in the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, when conservatives do respond, it is often in the manner of nervous accountants attempting to balance the books. They talk about “debts” and “deficits,” and dodge the moral question. They seem willing to say virtually anything to deflect attention from the human problems they should be talking about. Like good accountants, their concerns are impersonal. They retreat into numbers as though they do not want to even look at the human costs, and wag their fingers instead at government “waste” -- the imprudence of billions invested in government-sponsored electric cars that no one buys, and green firms run by the president’s cronies that go belly-up on the public dime.
Such reasoning cannot be faulted. Who better to invest capital—individual entrepreneurs who create wealth, or government bureaucracies that squander it? But reasoning that excludes the human consequences will fall on deaf political ears.
Politics is an arena of the emotions; reason is never decisive and rarely prevails. Why should progressive spenders be fazed by conservatives’ businesslike attacks, when those attacks never address the human suffering that lies behind the numbers? Progressives’ answer to conservative attacks is to renew their moral indictment. They contend that while a particular government program may be wasteful, that is part of the price to be paid for the noble cause of helping the helpless; that government investments that turn out to be wrong, are wrong for the right reasons; that government should do everything within its power to help where help is needed, even if those efforts sometimes fall short; and that erring in the name of compassion and hope is better than a heartless addiction to the bottom line.
Sometimes conservatives do have a human victim to point to, namely the taxpayer. But the this victim only provides more fodder for the progressive assault. When conservatives wring their hands over taxpayers’ woes, progressives accuse them of merely demonstrating that their real concern is to defend the selfish enemies of education and welfare, of minorities and the poor. What decent American would feel comfortable in these conservative shoes?
Conservatives typically frame the political argument in a manner that renders them unable to win it. And, other things being equal, they usually do not. Yet conservatives insist on going into every battle and every election with their accountant ledger in hand, as though by repeating the argument they might change the result.
This battle over the expansion of government is the crucial battle of our times. It is a battle to preserve individual freedom, the core of what America is about. Trillion-dollar deficits and universal government programs mean the diminution of individual freedom, and cannot mean anything else. If you are dependent on government for your health, what independence do you have? Yet even if the argument is put this way, many Americans will still be willing to make the sacrifice to provide for the welfare of others.
It is this argument—the welfare of others and especially the weak—that conservatives must begin to address if they are to gain a hearing for their concerns among those who are not already persuaded. To make a strong case for limiting government (and protecting freedom), conservatives need to address the concern most Americans have for the well-being of others. They need to speak to American hearts and not just their pocketbooks.
Here is the argument conservatives must make: The sins of government are not merely sins of omission; they are also sins of commission. Government programs are not only inadequately conceived and poorly managed—most people will concede as much—but they have destructive consequences for the very people they are designed to help: children, minorities, the poor, and working people. In other words, government programs have living, breathing, human victims, and those victims are not merely faceless "taxpayers."