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Big Government is Back in Style


Not so long ago, “Big Government” was so out of favor that Democratic President Bill Clinton announced its era had come to an end. A decade later and it seems there’s no end in sight to the swelling of our federal government. The Republicans proved themselves greedy and incompetent and did little to rein in spending and now Democrats are poised to take on significant power and flood our nation with government-funded initiatives. William Galston, writing for The American Prospect sees this as a good thing.

To respond effectively to our long-term challenges, the federal government must command an increased share of gross domestic product and extend its reach in other ways as well. The public sector will be called upon to provide new forms of insurance against economic risks and volatility and to assume more responsibility for health insurance and retirement security. To the extent that markets cannot police themselves or provide reasonable returns for workers, government will have to step in. Through the public mobilization of capital and will, we must supply the public goods–investment in infrastructure, research, and post-secondary education, among others–that we have neglected at our peril. And many millions of Americans will be unable to save for the future without new forms of public encouragement and support.

That’s enough to make any conservative rip out his or her own hair. It’s not that liberals like Galston want to use government to help citizens (that part is fine), it’s that they see government intervention as the only conceivable solution, as if the American people are too helpless and too victimized by Big Business and Free Trade to ever improve their lives without massive new government programs.

To be clear, Galston’s specific remedies aren’t inherently bad. Some are even good (like investing more in our infrastructure). My beef is with the cocksure attitude that only government can solve our problems. And, while Galston doesn’t say so specifically, there’s this underlying implication to his argument that those who are against big government are somehow in favor of the inequities currently plaguing our system – as if an opposition to liberal theory is proof of ill will.

And yet, Galston’s side is poised to win in this era because conservatives are failing to voice a strong alternative. Too often conservative “solutions” sound like do-nothing policies (which is, in fact, the party line against John McCain’s health care plan). It’s not enough to just say “no” to big government. There has to be an alternative, a Reaganism not of 1980 but of 2008, revamped for the modern age.

What government should be doing is helping create opportunity. Government should not step in to solve every problem an American may face but should instead just make sure there is a system of opportunities available to any American with the will and work ethic to take advantage of this nation’s great gifts. Some of Galston’s ideas are indeed about expanding opportunity but many others are just New Deal style handouts disguised as fancy modern ideas.

But at least Galston and his political brethren are assembling a coherent (if flawed) vision.

It’s time for modern conservatives to do the same – to scramble out of the weeds of yesteryear and realize demanding “small government” is no longer enough, especially after the Republicans have squandered any credibility they had on the issue. I believe we can tackle pressing problems with far less governmental intrusiveness. The task is to figure out how that can be done and convince others of its advantages.