All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Is Anyone Still for Limited Government?

Spontaneous Order, Not Government Programs, Makes America Great


The collapse of the supposed Republican Revolution has demonstrated the truth of George Wallace’s taunt three long decades ago: there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between the major parties. Today both Democrats and Republicans offer higher spending, new social programs, increased tax collections, and a more complex tax code.

But the demise of the conservative revolution extends far beyond the usual suspects. Republican lawmakers can at least plead political necessity. More bizarre is the end of any pretense of commitment to limited government among many supposed conservative intellectuals.

Last year Republicans boosted the budget, created a new health-care entitlement that will only grow over time, added funds for the usual job training programs that have never worked, and passed a tax bill that legislates envy. This year they approved a bloated transportation bill stuffed with an unprecedented amount of pork.

So far they’ve been expanding government only haphazardly, without any intellectual framework. But William Kristol and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard are working to provide such a foundation. They argue that government needs to promote national greatness. It is at base a profoundly statist notion. While those silly Americans might want to engage in the normal things of life—family, career, hobbies, and more—government needs to direct their attention elsewhere. They must be conscripted into some grand crusade by their betters, those far-seeing politicos who really know what greatness is.

What is this but twentieth-century “liberalism”? The Democratic presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter all demanded that Americans join in one crusade or another. And the pitch was always national greatness—alphabet-soup agencies to regulate the economy; expansive and expensive programs to clothe, feed, and nurture the population; massive militaries to make global war; internal crusades to end poverty and achieve energy independence. Bill Clinton attempted to follow suit with his proposal to nationalize the health-care system.

Kristol and Brooks formally recoil from left-wing statism, but Roosevelt’s call to overcome the Depression, Johnson’s attempt to end poverty, and even Bill Clinton’s initiative to provide universal health care all obviously reflected “a national goal,” in Brooks’s words. How does “national greatness” conservatism differ? Writes Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne: “Kristol and Brooks have to explain where they differ from Democrats, who also favor ‘limited but energetic’ government. Using government on behalf of ‘national greatness’ could get you right back to the New Deal.”

Kristol and Brooks seek to avoid the problem by offering few specifics. But David Brooks has cited the Library of Congress, national parks, and antitrust enforcement as examples of “grand American projects.” Uh, right. A rousing call to recharge Justice Department enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act would help avoid democracy’s tendency to, in his words, “slide into nihilistic mediocrity.”

The basic problem is that advocates of “national greatness” have an impossible dream. They denounce “the complacent mediocrity and petty meddling of the nanny state,” urging instead what Brooks terms a “limited but energetic government.” Alas, the American (and, indeed, human) experience suggests that no such government is possible: the state is the ultimate imperialist. If it can conscript money and manpower for grand national crusades, it cannot be limited.

Kristol told Dionne: “Are we willing to say that the country is worse off because of FDR or JFK or LBJ? I’m not willing to say that.” So much for limited government. National greatness obviously trumps liberty. One must, in fact, wonder why Kristol opposed Clintoncare.

Incredibly, Kristol and Brooks, like Clinton, go on to ask: How is it possible for people to “love their nation if they hate its government?” They apparently see no difference between society and state.

But what better reaction than contempt is there to a system that loots the taxpaying public for any project supported by an interest group with a letterhead listing more than three people? Real patriots should loathe agencies that brutalize and even kill people simply desiring to be left alone. Disgust is the only appropriate reaction to politicians who preach freedom while delivering higher spending, more complex taxes, and more intrusive regulation. This government deserves criticism precisely because it falls so far short of the greatness of the country it purports to represent.

What of Brooks’s concern that “democracy has a tendency to slide into nihilistic mediocrity if its citizens are not inspired by some larger national goal”? And that people lose “a sense of grand aspiration and noble purpose” when “they think of nothing but their narrow self-interest, of their commercial activities”?

The questions should be asked, but Kristol and Brooks are looking for answers in the wrong place. Democracy is usually mediocre, if not nihilistic. There was certainly nothing particularly virtuous about American politics a century ago, at the time when Congress decided to build Brooks’s beloved Library of Congress. Venality was hardly unknown even at the nation’s founding. National goals do arise, but they generally reflect exogenous crises, not contrived campaigns.

Moreover, most political questions are decided on the narrow self-interest of voters, especially those who have a great enough financial interest to organize. American politics has never been free of self-interest. Today pork-barrel projects persist and Social Security survives because those who benefit resolutely support “their” programs. Overcoming such selfishness requires a far more fundamental transformation, a regeneration of the soul. And that is more likely to occur when one has a realistic assessment of government, particularly the recognition that it is not an effective means to national greatness.

Nevertheless, Kristol and Brooks want government to inform its citizens’ hopes rather than organize their resentments. Fair enough. But that can be best achieved by leaving people alone. “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness,” writes Brooks. But of course it matters. People want genuine meaning for their lives. Such meaning is not provided by government projects, no matter how much some intellectuals may think they promote national greatness.

In the end, most people want simple things: to provide for their families, succeed at work, enjoy their hobbies and friends, and fulfill their responsibilities to their neighbors. They should be left alone to pursue their own hopes, not drafted to support the latest fad endorsed by an ephemeral congressional majority. It is people acting together, in community with one another, pursuing shared goals that makes America great. Not some program pushed by government social engineers, whether of the left or right.


  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.