Fight Big Government Smart, Not Just Loud

October 19th, 2010 at 11:39 am David Frum | 26 Comments |

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JS Trevino posed a question to me on Twitter yesterday:

Isn’t @davidfrum basically counseling a rule of thumb of acquiescence to the ratchet effect of leftist policy?

I’m quite serious: it’s difficult to see any meaningful proactive role for conservatism in @davidfrum’s analysis. That’s a problem.

I’d turn that question around: it’s difficult to see any meaningful role for conservatism in the pessimistic version of politics propounded  by some Tea Partiers. If it’s true that we are minutes away from collapsing into soft tyranny despite the election victories of 1980 and 1984 and 1988 and 1994 and so on, then you almost have to wonder: what’s the point? We’re just doomed, history runs one way, the ratchet is always ratcheting. If our victories are only temporary, and theirs are always permanent, then they’re fated to win sooner or later.

I do not believe in the ratchet. I think conservatives have won big and enduring victories – and that they can win big and enduring victories again. We have a freer economy in 2010, despite President Obama, than we did in 1980, never mind 1960.

I don’t think it is “acquiescence” to urge an accurate assessment of conservatism’s real political strength. I want Republicans to win elections and defend limited government. But falsely telling yourself that there’s a tea party majority out there is not a way to accomplish these ends. It’s a way toward more debacles like the reverse Waterloo of healthcare.

Anyway, speaking of acquiescing … can we notice that one of the tea party’s major themes has been the preservation of Medicare in all its ever-increasing costliness?

As I’ve been arguing on this site since President Obama took office – for that matter in a book I published all the way back in 2007 – I see the role of 21st century conservatism as defending limited government in an adverse time.

(Footnote: The time is adverse (1) because of the pending retirement of the baby boomers, (2) because the trend to income inequality has corroded the constituency for limited government, (3) because family breakdown and unwise immigration policies have increased the number of people who will need government aid, (4) because the genuine need for environmental protection demands new forms of collective action, and (5) because after the post-1989 lull we are moving into a period of intensified great power competition with China and perhaps others too.)

Limiting government in the 21st century will not be easy. A conservatism that is oriented toward protest rather than governing – that is culturally reactionary – and that is uninterested in policy detail will not be able to do the job.

Much of government is an exercise in choosing the least bad option. A movement that demands everything and punishes any politician who strikes a bargain that is better than the status quo but less than libertarian perfection – well, we’ll have our chance to see how much that movement achieves.

The Wyden-Bennett health plan that wrecked the career of Senator Bob Bennett would have been better from a conservative point of view than Obamacare.

TARP and the rescue of the banking system are better from a conservative point of view than a new Great Depression that would have involved a decade of massive government support of the private economy.

Some form of consumption or energy tax will be better from a conservative point of view than what we are on our way to getting instead: the lapse of the Bush tax cuts on saving, work and investment – and new payroll taxes to fund Social Security and Medicare.

People are responsible not only for their actions, but for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions. What’s reasonably foreseeable is that tea party style conservatism will result in a gridlock during which government will continue to grow – ending in a crisis in which conservatives face no choice but to acquiesce in actions much more obnoxious to conservative principle than the creative compromises that may be available today if we work for them.

I’m for a politics that seeks positive results. That’s the very opposite of acquiescence. By contrast, the charge of the Light Brigade may look brave. But we know how that story ends.

The tea party may think they are ferociously resisting the trend of the times. We’ll see how long they stick around. We’ll see whether they show up if it comes time to defend budget reductions. We’ll see whether they have the savvy to understand that balancing the budget may require choosing the least destructive form of tax increase rather than opposing all tax increases equally. (For a glimpse of the unpromising future, see Kevin Williamson’s exchange yesterday on NRO with Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform here and here.

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26 Comments so far ↓

  • Carney

    I have wondered the same thing as Trevino, and am to a degree reassured by this well written response.

    Although I disagree on the energy tax (a flex fuel mandate is a much more effective method to help get us off petroleum).

    And I wonder how, on social issues, Frum would respond to the charge that he supports acquiescing to the ratchet. He seems to have zero interest in any effort to even hold one’s ground, let alone find ways to move the ball there back in a rightward direction. But how can a decadent, drug-addled, casual-hookup, routine-abortion, post-marriage society — in which what few legal pair-bonds that are still formed collapse easily amid self-serving chaos, childhood stability is unknown, and a bristling, adolescent querulousness toward any even cultural, let alone legal, limits on personal behavior characterizes our Brave New World — truly be rallied to support serious entitlement reform, sober fiscal policy, a “long slog” against terrorism, long-term investments in science, space, health, energy, and infrastructure, and a strong military?

    Surely Frum, the big fan of Victorian literature, would recognize that cultures do not only move in one direction either, and that renewal and virtue can make comebacks against decay and vice? That the Victorian era was in part a reaction to the widespread alcoholism, mistress-flaunting, illegitimacy, etc. of the Regency era? That the 1950s were much wore conservative than the 1920s?

  • forkboy1965

    Like both the Frum post and your reply, Carney. But I would ask you, Carney, isn’t this all rather cyclical anyway? The 1950′s, due in no small part to its stodgy conservatism, led to the rebellion of the 1960′s.

    A marked shift to either end of the social spectrum will, eventually, lead to the pendulum swinging back the other way.

  • Carney

    forkboy, I certainly don’t want the excesses of the Victorian era (piano legs covered lest they remind viewers of women’s legs, etc.) to return.

    And while, in my view, we would do well to return to many aspects of the social mores of the “stodgy” 50s, we’ll have to do some creative thinking on how to avoid a 60s and 70s style collapse afterwards, if you are right.

  • easton

    good diagnoses, however not enough prescriptions.

    a few small points: The Wyden-Bennett health plan that wrecked the career of Senator Bob Bennett would have been better from a conservative point of view than Obamacare.

    But surely Frum knows if Democrats could have enacted Wyden-Bennett on day one, they would have, Bennett himself had to disavow his own plan, Wyden worked from within and gave the states the option to mimic his plan if they so chose (since it exceeds the basic parameters of the ACA)

    Again, where is the detailed roadmap that can pass Congress that will lead to a balanced budget, ie. one that has substantial compromises from both parties.

    As a Democrat I favor increasing retirement age, eliminating early retirement (but getting rid of payroll taxes after 62 as an incentive to elderly workers) changing the COLA for social security recipients to reflect what it is for the elderly alone. I am in favor of attacking entitlements and other spending, but in exchange for equitable tax rates along the lines of what it was under the Clinton years.

    But why is it that only Democrats come out with concrete proposals? (the Ryan plan is pure fantasy, promising to tackle medicare costs in 10 years via vouchers is silly, if vouchers are a good idea do them NOW, I am for school vouchers, you tell me I can have them in 10 years and you will just piss me off as it will be useless for me then and can be canceled anytime in the meantime)

  • pampl

    Good posts by misters Frum and Carney, wish I had something to add

  • Carney

    My larger point is that all three legs of the stool of conservatism – social, economic, and national security – are necessary, and each buttresses the other two, and not just electorally, but societally.

    From time to time various people pop up who want to saw off one of the legs.

    Mike Huckabee seems unenthusiastic about economic conservatism. Ron and Rand Paul are hostile to a vigorous policy against terrorism. And Frum-esque calls for a “culturally modern” view are a thinly disguised effort to ignore or ditch social conservatives. Ultimately all are self-defeating.

    Big government saps conservative values and makes national security unaffordable. Terrorism and American retreat will harm economic growth and undermine Western culture. And as I noted, a decadent society has no stomach for painful budget cuts and extended combat.

  • NRA Liberal

    Politics is not a ratchet and it’s not a football game.

    The effect of capitalism is to frustrate both social conservatives (the corrosive effects of free markets on society are well known) and economic liberals (if you want to see “the ratchet” working in a rightward direction, look at the history of deregulation, free trade and the destruction of the labor movement.)

    It’s not any big surprise, then, that our elites both left and right tend to be socially liberal and economically libertarian.

  • balconesfault


    From time to time various people pop up who want to saw off one of the legs.

    Mike Huckabee seems unenthusiastic about economic conservatism. Ron and Rand Paul are hostile to a vigorous policy against terrorism. And Frum-esque calls for a “culturally modern” view are a thinly disguised effort to ignore or ditch social conservatives. Ultimately all are self-defeating.

    Mike Huckabee concludes that an economic conservatism that wants to significantly roll back social spending in America … when America is already well behind most of the first world countries in per capita social spending … is at odds with his social conservatism which is based on an ideal of human beings having an intrinsic value above what they can produce in the economy.

    Ron and Rand Paul are a step ahead of a lot of many so-called libertarians, having already recognized that an America dedicated to maintaining a global military footprint can never be capable of a small, limited government.

    Frum is a pro-corporatist economic conservative – and he realizes that Microsoft and GE and Ford and other large drivers of our economy have no stake in the battles social conservatives wish to wage. Do you think a Fortune 500 company wants to alienate top workers who are gay by promoting regressive social issues? Hell, do you think that most Fortune 500 companies would rather see a twenty-something top performing female salesperson suddenly jump out of the salesforce for a period of time to carry and deliver a child she doesn’t think she’s ready to rear instead of just having an abortion and delaying motherhood?

    The problem with your three chair legs is that they’re at war with one another. You might get a Reagan or Bush from time to time who can appease the social conservatives enough to get everyone to gloss over those divisions, but then they keep doubling the national debt every time they get into office, so that doesn’t help much either.

  • Carney

    Valuing people for more than their productivity does not equal government social spending, especially from a distant central government.

    A militarily strong America with a forward presence is an unavoidable consequence of modern technology and geopolitics, unless you want a *more* violent, poorer world and nation, and one which may well require bigger government at home to address bigger internal security problems and economic distress.

    As for big corporations, they’ll have to swallow hard and play nice with social conservatives, just as heartfelt churchgoers will have to set aside their distrust for “more widget profits for the stockholders” types. That’s how grown-ups play coalition politics.

    Furthermore, typically, you misstate just who “wants” to “wage battles” and just who the aggressor in the culture war is.

    Finally, the left, with industrial unions vs. greens, feminists vs. Muslims, African Americans vs. Hispanics, etc. has plenty of tensions too, but most of the time manages to set its differences aside rather than buying into disruptive internal or external voices trying to portray those differences as intractable and grounds for pointless efforts to purge each other.

  • easton

    Carney, the problem is that the Chamber of Commerce views on immigration is far more at odds with the nativist crowds far more than the far more minor tensions within the Democratic party. Do you really imagine that blacks and hispanics are at each others throats, and unions are in serious decline, they are far more likely to organize green industries. As to feminists versus Muslims, Muslims make up next to nothing of the population and Conservative muslims are more likely to be Republicans.

    Previously, the Republican party could work it out, but the fringe has come far to front and center, the Chamber of commerce in South Carolina!!! has endorsed the Democrat for Governor. At some point the whatever they are teapartiers have got to dial back the rhetoric.

  • CD-Host

    Carney –

    I agree with you on the 3 legs reinforcing one another. Ultimately though it could work the other way.

    Capitalism undermines social bonds. The state could use its power to help to reinforce social bonds. Further poverty causes a drop off in reproduction that causes a drop off in conservatism. A social conservative would naturally want a situation where most workers are so-so and their lot is improving slowly so as to maximize the strength of bourgeois ties.

    Decreased labo mobility, high stable wages, …. authoritarian working structures which are rigid. Sounds a lot like mass unionization to me.

    I could do the same thing with other pairs. AFAICT any triple of liberal/conservative on economic/social/foreign policy goes together fine and can reinforce one another with the right social conventions.

  • Oldskool

    Big government saps conservative values and makes national security unaffordable.Except that national security creates big, make that huge, government. Try selling cuts in the military to conservatives. Or for that matter, cuts in Medicare, SS, etc.

    You could argue that “Big government” eats away at our options. But so did a trillion dollar war that never needed to be fought.

  • jerseychix

    I think that there is an intellectual pass that is given when people use the word “big government”. These arguments about cuts and things would be a lot better served by being more specific. I think, what is really the problem in “big government” is the professional unions. And I am not talking about the police officers and firemen (but retire at full pension at 50? Really?) but the paper pushers. No one talks about cutting those jobs because that would be “cutting defense”. No; cutting defense is not buying ammo. Eliminating my secretary’s job is getting rid of a nice person that has NO idea what to do on a day to day basis and has been showing up to work for 20 years. WHY is her job sacred??? That’s the big government that makes national security unaffordable. Yet, no one talks about these folks. Why??

  • llbroo49

    The problem with the cut “Big Government” argument is that deep down there is no concensus as to what is Big Government. Many people mention the Department of Education or the National Endowment for Arts because they have no idea what they really do or do not directly benefit from these agencies. There are many complaints about the Dept of Agriculture’s subsidies to large agribusinesses, but few ever question subsidies given to individual farmers.

    In reality, we have the government that we want (collectively). Conservatives fought the implementation of both social security and medicare. But today, conservatives are among its staunches defenders. Many people if polled are against abortion, but very little support would be given for a Constituional Ammendment to ban the procedure.

    I recall that Rick Santelli (sp?) is credited for starting the Tea Party movement because he didn’t think the government should be in the business of saving homeowners that were at risk for default. However, today you would be hard pressed to find a politician on the Right that would argue that it would be in the best interest of the country to face mass foreclosures.

    I don’t like it, but on the face of it, Liberals have been more consistent than their conservative counterparts. Unfortunately, over time the liberal message has been to do what they think is right for America, while the conservative agenda has addressed what is right for “me” at a particular point in life.

  • llbroo49

    jerseychix // Oct 19, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Professional unions in the Federal Government are a joke and can’t be compared to their state/local or private sector counter-parts. Federal unions are not allowed to go on strike- taking away the only effective weapon that organized labor has. Federal uniion stewards are only enabled to ensure that management follows policies and practices passed by Congress- not union negotiated policies (ie to make sure the due process and the proper steps are taken when firing federal employees). The only real benefit of the federal unions is when they form health care plans or negotiate health care plans with private sector insurance companies.

    The last Federal labor dispute involving its unions was under the Reagan Admin when air traffic controllers went on strike. Reagan fired all of them, and to date very few, if any of them ever were reinstated.

  • balconesfault

    easton Previously, the Republican party could work it out, but the fringe has come far to front and center, the Chamber of commerce in South Carolina!!! has endorsed the Democrat for Governor.

    In reality, there are a lot of local and state Chambers of Commerce across the country who support progressive politicians and progressive legislation. The National Chamber of Commerce is a wholly different creature, being essentially an anti-Dem/anti-Progressive institution first and foremost.

    Carney Valuing people for more than their productivity does not equal government social spending, especially from a distant central government.

    So says you. Others look at a nation where economic cycles can result in good people losing jobs and going into severe economic hardships which put great stress on family stability … and where state and local governments and charitable organizations are all subject to the same economic cycles and thus often unable to increase or even sustain social spending or charitable giving when people need it most … and conclude that a strong central government (distant, as it were, because we’re a big country after all) with the resources and borrowing ability to maintain aid in such times is necessary to being a humane, or even Christian, nation.

  • sinz54

    Carney: But how can a decadent, drug-addled, casual-hookup, routine-abortion, post-marriage society ….— truly be rallied
    The Silicon Valley culture borrows heavily from the culture of nearby San Francisco.
    Many of Silicon Valley’s famous entrepreneurs have relaxed attitudes about sex and drugs. The older ones are ex-hippies and lefties from the 1970s.

    Steve Jobs used to hallucinate on LSD.
    That doesn’t seem to have stopped him from creating the Apple II, the Macintosh, and the technologies that launched the desktop publishing industry.

  • nhthinker

    Frum still doesn’t get it. Government spending is substantially too large especially federal spending.
    Taxation and deficit spending are the drugs of government.

    Conservatives believe that government is not responsible for correcting moral deficiencies in its citizens-
    (It is responsible for punishment of legal transgressions).
    Conservatives believe that a person’s moral code is their own responsibility or the responsibility of the family, social groups and religious groups that they belong to.

    Conservatives view that government attempts to address the symptoms of moral deficiencies of its citizens in a judgement-free manner generally causes additional moral hazard over time, and clearly correlates with an exacerbation of the root moral deficiency and it causes citizens to act in both a more dependent and more entitled manner.

    Waiting for Superman:

    “On international tests, American children rank 25th in math and 21st in science, despite the push for greater accountability through No Child Left Behind. This 2002 law pledged that 100% of kids would be reading and doing math at grade level within ten years, but 8 years later the test scores look ominous: only 14% of Mississippi students, 30% of NY students, and 24% of California kids are proficient in math. Nationwide, only 20-34 percent of kids in the United States are currently reading at grade level. What’s more, although America is falling behind in math, our kids are first in confidence. American students get terrible math scores compared to their international peers, but they think they’re great in math—in fact, they have more confidence in their math skills than students from any other country.”

    This is all because of the judgment free environment encouraged by our mamby-pamby government programs.

    Frum rejects Aesop’s story of the Ant and the Grasshopper. True conservatives view there is a very important moral in that fable. The Ant believed in the equivalent of the gold standard. The Grasshopper does not care as long as he gets fed (even if it’s by unsustainable Fed money policy).

    What size should government be? I’ll hazard to guess that most actual Conservatives view the federal budget is likely at least 25% too large today. Both entitlements and military spending are too high.

    In the “old” days, the cost of the superpower military was defrayed by the trading advantages in produced for the US: that has not been true for many years- If the rest of the world wants to pay for the protection that the US gives it, then maybe it would make sense to keep military expenditures high.

    High entitlement expenditures cause more problems than they have resolved- They unintentionally cause people to act like grasshoppers instead of ants.

  • Rabiner


    “Taxation and deficit spending are the drugs of government.”

    Considering deficit spending only occurs when taxation is insufficient I’d say only one of those two can be considered ‘drugs of the government’.

  • nhthinker

    Taxation in moderation can be like a therapeutic drug. Most of the taxation since the 50s has been out of control- binge taxation and when that didn’t provide enough high, then binge deficit spending kicks in.
    The invention of the term “discretionary spending” is analogous to drug lingo.

    The income tax progressive nature has built in inflation based repeating tax hike built into it. Illicit Drug dealers would kill to have such opportunity with their customers.

  • balconesfault

    Look – if we’re going to be silly and apply “drug” labels – let’s at least apply some precision.

    Government spending is the drug. That includes social services, that includes military, that includes the basic cost of running the administration, congress, and judiciary, that includes DEA and EPA and FCC and BATF and BLM and FAA and SEC and the rest of the alphabet soup it takes to maintain an environment where business can prosper and Americans can be protected without having to rely solely on the tort system for post-harm redress.

    Now some of the spending might fall in your therapeutic drug category. And some might fall into your crack cocaine category.

    Funny enough, there are other voters who would put some of your priorities in the crack cocaine bin … and some of the programs you oppose in the “therapeutic drug” bin.

    And that’s the nature of the political process – to sort out those bins, and to figure out how much we’re willing to pay for what’s in them, and to figure out how we’re going to collect that much money.

    It is in the last category – figuring out how we’re going to collect that much – that the GOP has largely gone AWOL. For 30 years now their solution has been the fairy dust of supply side economics.

    But the taxes aren’t the drug. Taxes are just being an adult and paying for what you’ve voted on.

  • Rabiner


    “The income tax progressive nature has built in inflation based repeating tax hike built into it. ”

    care to rephrase so it actually makes sense? or elaborate so we all know what you’re trying to say?

  • nhthinker


    ““The income tax progressive nature has built in inflation based repeating tax hike built into it. ””

    All tax rates are codified based on actual dollar amounts not on dollar amounts adjusted for inflation-
    For example, many people now have been required to pay AMT because inflation has ratcheted up the actual tax rates of inflation adjusted income.
    Every progressive tax system whose tax brackets are not inflation adjusted are a built in repeating tax hike.


    Actually, it is supposed to start with:
    “Amendment 10 – Powers of the States and People. Ratified 12/15/1791. Note

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    It’s not supposed to be a matter of what the majority wants. It’s only supposed to be what the majority places into law that is consistent with granted constitutional powers.
    It is supposed to take a supermajority by ratified amendment to extend those powers. Powers cannot be legally extended though legislation nor by USSC decree.

    The motto going forward will be: Is government still too big and wasteful? Then make sure it cuts spending to the right size BEFORE raising ANY taxes. Otherwise government will continue to grow out of control.

  • Carney

    sinz54, Jobs and other high success hippies long ago “sold out”. Their lifestyle today is dramatically different than in their youth, intensely disciplined, and oriented toward not merely productive activity, but bourgeois respectability, loath though they may be at times to admit it. Hence the continued tired posing in blue jeans rather than suits, using 60s pop music at corporate announcements, etc.

  • Non-Contributor

    Hows that war on drugs going?

    To me its rather idiotic to say the government is too big. If that is your mantra is will be short lived because as soon as the economy turns around no one will really care.

  • nhthinker

    ‘If that is your mantra is will be short lived because as soon as the economy turns around no one will really care.”

    Real conservatives will still care. They also understand the relationship between the size and scope of government and the requirements of the Tenth Amendment: do you?