Is the Era of Limited Government Over?

Is the era of limited government over? It may be. You can hear the case for greater concentrations of power in the hands of the federal government being advanced even in conservative circles these days. This is an issue of concern for Catholics who take seriously the principle of subsidiarity articulated in the social encyclicals, which warns us of reflexively granting power to the central government.

I refer to recent syndicated columns by conservative commentators David Brooks and George F. Will. Some may object that Brooks and Will are not "true" conservatives. But that is precisely the point. They don't sound like the conservatives of old on the question of limited government.

Brooks writes that it is folly for the GOP to seek "to reconnect with the truths of its Goldwater-Reagan glory days" and to promote itself as the "minimal-government party, the maximal-freedom party, the party of rugged individualism, and states' rights." That message had the power to attract voters when socialism "was still a coherent creed, and many believed the capitalist world was headed toward a Swedish welfare model," and "normal, non-ideological people were right to think their future prospects might be dimmed by a stultifying state."

Brooks continues: "But today, many of those old problems have receded or been addressed. Today the big threats to people's future prospects come from complex, decentralized phenomena: Islamic extremists, failed states, global competition, global warming, nuclear proliferation, a skills-based economy, economic and social segmentation." The bottom line? "Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they're not models for the future," because modern Americans "are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena."

 George Will agrees. In his Washington Post column he writes, "Today 'strong government conservatism' — 'strong' is not synonymous with 'big' — is the only conservatism palatable to a public that expects government to assuage three of life's largest fears: illness, old age and educational deficits that prevent social mobility." What about "creeping socialism" and the threat to individual freedom that conservatives have warned about since the 1950s? Will is not alarmed: "This belief mistakenly assumes that all government action is merely coercive, hence a subtraction from freedom. But government can act strongly to make itself less controlling and intrusive, enacting laws that offer opportunities and incentives for individuals to become more self-sufficient."

I am coming around to Brooks' and Will's side on this one. I don't fear the growth in federal power the way I used to. I still think the principle of subsidiarity eminently wise, even in strictly human terms. The federal government should take responsibility for a societal problem only when private organizations and state and local government have proven demonstrably incapable of dealing with it. But I am willing to concede the federal government more power than I used to think prudent. The landscape has changed for me.

Why? First of all, let me make clear that I do not think the Washington politicians and federal bureaucrats have become more honest and efficient in the last few decades. It is just that I don't think local and state politicians are any better. I have lived in three different states in the past decade: New York, North Carolina and Connecticut. There is a common denominator. In all three states, local mayors, town managers, school board members, union officials, police officials and town and highway supervisors have been caught with their hands in the till. The Republican governor of Connecticut went to jail on corruption charges about a year after I moved to the state.

But there is another explanation for why I am more willing to give more power to the feds than I used to be. The central reason given by conservatives for keeping power out of the hands of the federal government was that the voters would be able to keep tabs better on local officials, thereby minimizing corruption and maximizing efficiency. I don't see things that way any longer. The much criticized "partisan atmosphere" in Washington and the explosion of the internet blogs and talk shows on radio and television have changed the equation.

In the 1950s and before, Washington deal-makers like Sam Rayburn and Everett Dirksen were distant figures for most Americans. You could see the wisdom of the conservative argument that we should keep as much money and power away from them and the "anonymous, faceless" federal bureaucracy as we could. It is not that way any longer. The members of Congress and their critics are all over the nightly talk shows. I submit that they have a harder time getting away with dishonest practices than the head of your local parks department.

I am not exaggerating: I read the newspapers and try to keep up on local politics, but I know more about what Nancy Pelosi is doing than the mayor of the town where I live in Connecticut. (I am embarrassed to admit this, but as I sit here typing today, I can't even recall the mayor's name.) I bet most Americans would agree that they do not feel they have any more control over municipal and state officials than what goes on in Washington. In every place that I have lived there has been someone who looks like Tip O'Neill or Tony Soprano cutting deals that either break or manipulate the law for private gain. "One hand washes the other, pal." 

At least in Washington, the media scrutiny and intense partisan politics throws the spotlight onto corruption. I am not being naïve. I have no doubt that there are corrupt Washington politicians and bureaucrats who get away with all kinds of graft and dishonest deals. But many get caught; at least as often as local politicians. Everyone can rattle off the names, from both parties: Dan Rostenkowski, Duke Cunningham, Robert Torricelli, Robert Ney and the other Republicans linked to Jack Abramoff.  

Republicans harbor a dislike for Democratic Party operatives like James Carville and the "liberal press." Democrats feel the same for people like Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh. But you have to admit one thing: activists of this sort — even if motivated by partisan politics more than by civic-mindedness — will not let the other side get away with anything shady. Local politicians do not usually face such scrutiny, especially in the one-party towns and cities that seem to be the norm rather than the exception around the country.

I am not quarreling with the principle of subsidiarity. It makes sense to grant power to the central government only when our local or state government cannot handle the responsibility in question more honestly and more efficiently. But it seems to me that we  have reached the point where we can give the central government the power recommended by George Will and David Brooks without crossing that line.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage