Arnold Kling  

Small Government vs. Conservative Government

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Paul Ryan debates David Brooks. What I heard at the debate was shaped by Jonah Goldberg's description of libertarians and conservatives. The conservative wants the government to be conservative, with little concern about its size. The libertarian wants the government to be small, with little concern about whether it is conservative.

I heard Brooks arguing the conservative viewpoint. He wants a government that "builds character," regardless of its size. He worries that without government help, the underclass will stay unmarried, uneducated, and dependent.

I heard Ryan argue that the most urgent issue is the unsustainable path of government spending. He worries that without action soon, we will head toward a debt crisis of the sort pending in Europe.

At a tactical level, I heard Brooks arguing for political compromise. He feared that Republicans would reject useful compromises and end up with nothing. To me, this make some sense. The Republicans hold one part of one branch of government. The balance of power does not suggest that they can dictate the terms of current policy.

Ryan took a stronger line. However, he touted the Ryan-Rivlin plan for health care, which I assume required some compromise in thinking. No one ever confused Alice Rivlin with Ayn Rand.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Paul Jaminet writes:

Arnold, I think you may have adopted some liberal/left idea of what a "conservative" is.

No American conservative thinks David Brooks is a conservative. Everyone thinks Paul Ryan is conservative.

A lot of leftist propaganda promotes the idea that "small government" and free societies are literally inconceivable; that claims to support such things are merely Trojan horses for a different form of tyranny, because coercion is inevitable. They have been making this charge against conservatives for many decades. It has never been true; American conservativism has always been a small-government, liberty-loving ideology.

So to conservatives it is impossible to have a conservative government that is not small.

This is why the Tea Party objects to many sitting Republicans. Tea Partiers think many Republicans pretend to be conservatives to get elected, but are not.

Fazal Majid writes:

The Republicans hold two out of three branches of government, or do you think the Supreme Court is chopped liver?

Jacob Oost writes:

Paul Jaminet: I wish what you are saying is true, and it's what I believed about conservatives until I got to know more of them, and many conservatives are perfectly happy for the US to be imperialist abroad (occupation of Japan, Germany, US military bases all over the world), to use the government to stop consenting adults from doing what they want behind closed doors, restricting international trade and migrations, funding the heck out of any and all defense and space projects, and a variety of other issues on which many conservatives favor large government intervention.

Which is why I don't call myself a conservative.
:-D

While I'm at it, I'll point out why I sometimes wince at calling myself a libertarian:

Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell, and Rothbard, and the fact that most libertarians are hypocrites by not being pro-life. :-D

Have a nice day.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

We are confined here to the U.S. experience.

It is not a question of "small" or "conservative" governments (we do have several levels).

Until we answer the question of "what are the functions of government" and the related question of "whether the function of a Constution is to define the functions of government," all the chit-chat, deficit commisions, road maps will resolve nothing

Scrutineer writes:

>i>The Republicans hold two out of three branches of government, or do you think the Supreme Court is chopped liver?

Fazal, the Republicans control only one half of Congress, and the Supreme Court has virtually nothing to say about the scope of the federal budget (unless, against all odds, it strikes down Obamacare).

Hyena writes:

The conservative wants the government to be conservative, with little concern about its size. The libertarian wants the government to be small, with little concern about whether it is conservative.

I think this is a very good scheme for thinking about it. I wonder, though, if this isn't just an artifact of how much mainstream libertarianism has become just fiscal conservatism.

I suspect that libertarians would not whinge about the size of government, so long as it was libertarian in its aims. A society overrun by zombies or deep in the grip of crime would employ a lot of night watchmen....

Salem writes:

I see Brooks as arguing from an extreme insider position, that because the current Democratic leadership aren't "extremists", we do not have to fear a slippery slope, and talking about "getting things done." The problem is that when he lists the fruits of compromise - the Railroad Act, the Federal Reserve, the New Deal - conservatives may well say that those have all proved disasters!

Brooks does not come across as a conservative at all, more - in European terms - a Christian Democrat, while Ryan is more conservative than libertarian. But I think the key distinction is an insider/outsider one, where Ryan is saying we need energetic change, whereas Brooks is saying we need to compromise with the status quo. It's particularly ironic because in theory Ryan (a Congressman) is the insider, whereas Brooks (a journalist) is the outsider - perhaps this is a reflection on the changed nature of power/influence in 2010.

Doc Merlin writes:

1. David Brooks isn't a conservative.
2. You should never start from compromise;. Doing so only weakens your position and makes a compromise that "moves the chains" in your favor, less likely.

Doc Merlin writes:

@Paul Jaminet
I agree about Brooks; if anything he is a Whig. He would be considered a conservative in continental europe, but not in the United States.

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