The essential difference: More or less

Mark W. Hendrickson's picture

Thank you, Rahm Emanuel! Mr. Emanuel, a Democratic congressman from Illinois and former senior policy adviser to President Clinton, recently published several election-year policy proposals on the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal.

The timing of Emanuel’s article was magnificent. The Democratic nomination campaign had degenerated into neurotic angst over whether the eventual nominee would have different biological plumbing or more skin pigmentation than any previous nominee for the U.S. presidency.

Most of us could care less if the president is a purple neuter as long the policies advocated are acceptable, so Emanuel performed a public service by focusing on substantive rather than symbolic issues.

Although Emanuel’s proposals were standard Democratic talking points — winking to the labor unions, proposing increased government spending on education, health care, and alternative energy sources — his proposals were clear and straightforward.

His essential political philosophy — shared by Clinton and Obama — can be summarized in one word: “more,” as in, “more government.”

Indeed, from an economic standpoint, the elemental political choice is always between more or less government. Do we want more government control over our lives and livelihood or less? More government spending and programs or less? More government power over us or less?

One of the salient features of Election Year 2008 is how strongly and consistently the Democrats present the case for more, and how the Republican Party has failed to provide voters an alternative by making the case for less.

The one exception, of course, has been Ron Paul, whose libertarian ideas won intensely enthusiastic but numerically limited support.

Why is the philosophy of more dominating the philosophy of less? One possible explanation is strategic.

The Democrats are politically smarter than the Republicans. Experience has taught them the political foolhardiness of over-reaching. Many Democrats still have socialistic biases, favoring government control over market forces and government redistribution of wealth, but they have toned down their rhetoric and taken their overt socialism underground.

They have become the modern American version of Britain’s old Fabian socialists, content to expand government control in gradual increments rather than in a rapid, convulsive revolution.

Democrats today are far too clever to say that if they could have their way, government would take care of everything for us, but you know where their heart is by the fact that on any economic issue, they will invariably come down on the side of “more.”

If Republicans or libertarians ever want to amass popular support for “less,” they will need to emulate the Democrats’ gradualist strategy. That means presenting an agenda less radical than Ron Paul’s.

Such a suggestion is anathema to libertarians, but the political reality is that only a small percentage of Americans are true believers in the polar ideologies of socialism on the left or libertarianism on the right.

The adherents of those philosophies will have to settle for modest successes — either more government or less, not total government or zero.

The libertarians continue to marginalize themselves and render themselves ineffective by continuing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

If they ever hope to win national elections in the United States, they will have to advocate incremental steps toward less government, instead of an overnight demolition of it.

They might start by proposing to first freeze federal spending, and then, when people see that it did not precipitate the end of the world, propose cutting spending by 2 percent per year.

They might call for privatizing a few tasks currently performed by government that could be handled by private firms as a first step to a broader privatization.

Instead of placing expiration dates on tax cuts, as the Democrats forced President Bush to do, those who believe we need less government should propose that various government spending programs expire at year-end unless re-examined and reauthorized.

Of course, the main reason why the philosophy of less isn’t championed by John McCain and most Republicans today is because they simply don’t believe in it.

The dominant wing of the Republican Party in the last 50 years has been comprised of those who want more government, though usually not as much as the Democrats want — “Big Government Lite.”

Even the one Republican leader whose philosophy was “less,” Ronald Reagan, failed to rein in government spending. Why? Perhaps it is because “we the people” want Big Government.

The growth of government spending under Republican and Democratic presidents alike can only persist because a democratic majority wants it.

In that case, “more” will remain in the ascendancy for some time to come — until things get a lot worse from Big Government’s cumbersome meddling and enough voters finally learn that Reagan was right when he said that government is the problem and not the solution.

Until that day, the only question is: How fast will we travel on the road to more?

[Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City (Penn.) College.]

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