US Republicans – or, perhaps, I should be writing US conservatives – have been debating their attitude to the size and scope of government.
Bill Kristol kicked things off in his weekly New York Times column. He argued that recent Republican Presidents hadn’t succeeded in delivering small government and he notes that Jeb Bush – now openly considering a run for the US Senate – may be billing himself as a small government conservative but his record as Florida’s Governor was mixed:
"Jeb Bush was a successful and popular conservative governor of Florida, with tax cuts, policy reforms and privatizations of government services to show for his time in office. Still, in his two terms state spending increased over 50 percent — a rate faster than inflation plus population growth. It turns out, in the real world of Republican governance, that there aren’t a whole lot of small-government Republicans."
Ross Douthat – at Atlantic.com – would like readers to think of small government conservatism as more of an attitude than a pure position and he contends that the attitude hasn’t done too badly:
"Around the time that Buckley founded National Review, the federal government’s share of GDP had been rising steadily for more than thirty years, from 3 percent in 1925 to 18.8 percent in 1962. In the Sixties and early Seventies, it seemed extremely plausible that the United States was a glide path to European-style social democracy. Then came the conservative ascendancy – and thirty years later, in 2001, government’s share of GDP stood at … 18.4 percent of GDP. (It’s inched up somewhat, of course, under George W. Bush.) Now obviously there are a variety of reasons why the size of government stopped rising after the Seventies, but far from least among them is the influence that Buckley-style small-government conservatism has wielded over public policy lo these many years. (And remember that he promised to stop history, not to roll it back.)"
As ConservativeHome reflected on the debate there seem to be three obvious learnings:
(1) Don’t talk too abstractly
That’s certainly Yuval Levin’s view: "Small government is not an end in itself but a means to the ends conservatives pursue: economic freedom, prosperity, a thriving culture, strong families, and a secure America, among others. Why not make those the primary terms of the arguments we make."
(2) It’s not always sensible to change the topic
Ross Douthat again: "Too often, when domestic-policy debates come up, conservatives are far too eager to change the subject: The public says education; the Right say "let’s talk about capital-gains tax cuts." The public says health care; the Right says "let’s talk about terrorism." The public says infrastructure; the Right says … "let’s refurbish military bases"??" … trying to turn a conversation about highways, roads and rail into an conversation about why we need to spend more money on the military seems like a good way to convince Americans that the Right is pretty much only interested in talking about warfare and taxation, no matter what else happens to be on the country’s mind."
(3) If government has to grow, let’s ensure it grows in the Right way
Emil W Henry calls on conservatives to accept that America’s infrastructure needs to be renewed but urges the renewal process to be prosecuted in a conservative way: "Conservatives know that the private sector is better than the government at designing, building, operating and financing infrastructure. This, combined with the magnitude of the spending required, means government will have to tap private capital and expertise. Conservatives can supply leadership in private-sector participation, encourage public-private partnerships, and help ensure that central planning and prioritization are rooted in clinical cost-benefit analysis, not politics."