Commentary Magazine

It's Big Government, Stupid

Journalists who covered Patrick J. Buchanan’s abortive 1992 presidential campaign heard some remarkably stinging invective from him about the crushing burden of Big Government. When pressed for details, however, Buchanan could bring himself to name only three specific civilian budget cuts. He would repeal half the 1990 congressional pay raise, eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, and end all foreign-aid programs—for a grand-total savings of some $13.2 billion. Yet in the 1992 fiscal year, the United States government spent nearly $1.5 trillion, an amount equal to the entire gross domestic product of united Germany. From that vast ocean of money, fed by roaring rivers of unnecessary and destructive spending, greasy with floating blobs of waste, the man who regards himself as the most fearless conservative in America would blot up rather less than 1 percent.

However marginal some of Buchanan’s views may be, his timidity in the face of Big Government is all too typical of American conservatives, including even Ronald Reagan. Reagan owed his 1980 presidential victory to what seemed at the time an inspired political stroke. There would be no more threats to throw widows out into the snow, no more Taft- and Goldwater-style calls for self-reliance, cheese-paring, and pay-as-you-go, no more flinty frugality. Rather than fight and lose the battle over the welfare state for the hundredth time, Reagan would change the subject from spending to taxes. Later, after the tax cuts had worked their supply-side magic in the form of increased revenue, there would be plenty of time to start chopping away at the excesses of Big Government.

And indeed, federal revenues did shoot upward in the booming 80’s—even revenues from the personal income-tax cut, just as the supplysiders had predicted. Unfortunately, federal spending swelled even faster. Conservatives would later pin the blame for this spending binge on a hostile Democratic Congress. But a quick flip through the pages of the budget documents of the decade shows that spending grew fastest for Republican constituencies: pensioners, farmers, and veterans. In the end, Reagan’s two administrations piled up more debt, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman had incurred to win World War II. Then, in the following four years, George Bush accumulated three times more debt (again adjusting for inflation) than Woodrow Wilson had taken on to fight World War I.



Conceivably, the failure of the Reagan gambit might have persuaded conservatives—in government and out—to redouble their zeal for scaling back the functions of the state. But that is not what happened. Most people on the Right accepted the view that anything Reagan had left undone simply could not be done.

Thus, in the spring of 1992, Policy Review sent a questionnaire to twenty moderate-to-conservative Senators. What would you do, the magazine asked, to cut $25 billion from the budget? The real news was not that only five bothered to answer, or that only one of the five, the Colorado Republican Hank Brown, had any useful suggestions to offer. The real news was that Policy Review, the organ of the Heritage Foundation, the intellectual armory of Reaganism, thought that $25 billion—or less than 2 percent of federal expenditure—was as ambitious a spending-cut target as it could realistically set.

Whatever they might say in their after-dinner speeches or in their op-ed pieces, conservatives had effectively thrown in the towel on government spending. As Heritage despairingly wondered, in the briefing book it compiled for the new Bush administration in 1989: “If Ronald Reagan and his ‘Reaganauts’ could only slow down the growth of government spending, not reverse it or eliminate wasteful programs, what hope is there for any other conservative President. . . ?” Understandably, post-Reagan conservatives have been greatly tempted to stop thinking about shrinking government, and to look for a new and less frustrating message.

The message they have found is summed up in the phrase, “the culture.” As the always quotable Buchanan wrote in defense of his controversial speech to the 1992 Republican convention in Houston: “We cannot raise the white flag in the culture war, for that is a war about who we are. Nor can conservatives become conscientious objectors—because culture shapes politics, culture is the Ho Chi Minh trail to power. Surrender this province, and we lose America.”

Precisely what is meant by “the culture” has always been more than a little unclear. Some conservatives, like Hilton Kramer and Samuel Lipman of the New Criterion, use the term to encompass arts and letters, the sciences, and intellectual life generally, all of which, they fear, are being politicized and degraded. Other conservatives, like Midge Decter and William J. Bennett, appear principally to be talking about morality—and in particular, the attitude of the mass media, the entertainment industry, and the nation’s religious, political, and intellectual leaders toward morality. Still other conservatives use the term to mean the civilization created on this continent by European immigrants—a civilization they see as threatened by the assaults of multiculturalism.

The problem is that a politics of opposition to cultural decay in any or all of these senses cannot work as a substitute for a politics of opposition to Big Government. For perhaps the most important force driving the social trends that offend conservatives, from family breakup to unassimilated immigration, is the welfare function of modern government. The nearly $1 trillion the federal government spends each year on social services and income maintenance—and the additional hundreds of billions spent by the states—is a colossal lure tempting citizens to reckless behavior. Remove those heaps of money, and the penalties would again deter almost everyone from personal misconduct, as they did before the welfare state was set up in 1933, and as they even continued to a lesser extent to do before its huge expansion in 1965.



The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of losing his job, or having his business destroyed by a competitor, or seeing his investment portfolio crash. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Government subsidy, by contrast, does for many who are not rich what her millions did for the late socialite Barbara Hut-ton—it enables them to engage in destructive behavior without immediately suffering the consequences.

Twenty years ago, an economist named Sam Peltzman noticed that drivers who wore seat belts, while suffering far fewer accidents than drivers who did not, inflicted far more. The welfare state functions as a political safety belt, reducing the riskiness of all of our lives; and, just as with real safety belts, there are what Peltzman called “feedback effects” from our newfound sense of personal security. Some of these effects are undoubtedly good. Unemployment insurance, by easing fears of job loss, does seem to relax workers’ anxieties about technological change. Other effects are not so good.

Consider the example of what ranks in conservative thinking as perhaps the most corrupted institution in American society: the university. Suppose that there were no student loans, and very little general state aid to higher education; imagine that every student (save those who could win a scholarship from the university itself) were paying the full cost of his own tuition and that the university had no sources of income other than tuition, alumni and corporate gifts, endowment income, and grants from government exclusively for specific research projects. In such a world, the universities would not look at all like the schools that now enrage conservative critics of American higher education.

Forced to spend their own money, the less motivated students, or those seeking only (as one conservative academic once put it) to prove the negative point that they were not so idle and incompetent as to fail to get a B.A., would drop away. The students who remained, paying $1,000 or more per course, would become discriminating consumers. Some demand for film studies, black studies, gay studies, and courses on the novels of Louis L’Amour would linger on—but in a cash-on-the-barrelhead university, the demand for them would be much less.

So, pretty quickly, would the supply. How and why the likes of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Frantz Fanon have come to loom so large in American higher education is a big and vexing question. But at least part of the answer is that American universities teach what they do for the same reason Polish factories under Communism used to turn out pairs of boots with two left feet: the factories made what pleased them; and because the consumers were paying with soft currency, they took whatever it pleased the factories to make. With consumers—i.e., students—paying real money—i.e., their own—the universities would no longer be able to get away as easily with teaching useless or politicized junk.

Nobody can promise that the end of state aid to universities would chasten them immediately. Organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations could still channel billions to the universities’ most destructive personalities and functions. It would take a generation, possibly more, for the pranksters and sophists in the academy to retire. But surely if large-scale state aid to higher education had never been tried, the universities would be more wholesome places from the conservative point of view today, and if massive aid ended tomorrow, they would tend over time to become more wholesome.

Furthermore, with greater sacrifices demanded of the families of those seeking higher education, the proportion of Americans going on to college would shrink. That in turn would mean that state governments could no longer count on the colleges to remedy the deficiencies of the high schools. America turns out students the way General Motors once turned out cars: slovenly workers on the line count on a highly paid team of fixers at the end of the line to redo and repair their bungled labors. If there were fewer fixers, the schools would have to be run like a Toyota line instead: the job would have to be done right the first time.



Similar “feedback effects” drive the crisis of family breakdown. Welfare can never be reformed in a way that simultaneously encourages people to work and provides them with a decent livelihood if they do not. I am not suggesting—not very confidently anyway—that abolishing welfare would undo the harm the program has done. It is quite possible that this trap cannot be escaped through the same route by which it was entered. But if welfare had never been expanded in the middle 1960’s, if a sixteen-year-old who got pregnant in 1994 had the same unpleasant options her counterpart did in 1964—beg her furious parents for help, drop out of school and take a job, or somehow persuade the father to marry her and take a job himself—is it not probable that she would be as unlikely to give birth out of wedlock as her 1964 predecessor was?

Of course the world—or “the culture”—in which the teenager of 1994 lives is not so hostile to illegitimacy as the world in which her grandmother lived. But if the culture that abhorred illegitimacy has vanished, perhaps it has done so because it is hard for most people to believe for very long in the wrongness of something that the government rewards. The English jurist James Fitzjames Stephen observed 130 years ago that while it is true that most people refrain from stealing because they believe stealing to be wrong, and not because they fear hanging, it is also true that the reason most people believe stealing to be wrong is that thieves are hanged.

It really should not surprise anyone that the welfare state has weakened family structures. That was what the welfare state’s social programs were meant to do. The family used to be connected by its members’ mutual responsibility for child-rearing, unemployment, sickness, old age, disability, and burial. But while strict mutual responsibility did a fair job of deterring illegitimacy and abandonment, it never succeeded very well in coping with illegitimacy and abandonment once they occurred. The welfare state was designed to replace and improve upon those old family functions. It thus reduced the economic importance of the family—which, predictably, weakened the family’s stability.

To be sure, there is little clamor for going back to the old ways. Social Security is more reliable, more generous, more efficient, and less intrusive than one’s children; and from the child’s point of view, even a 15.3-percent payroll tax is a lot less trouble than having to look after a bedridden old mother in the spare room. Certainly, it is more agreeable to slice “duty” out of the lexicon, to visit one’s aged parents knowing that it is someone else’s job to provide for them, or to drop one’s children off at a day-care center instead of begging a favor from one’s sister or mother.

Hence, it is not very realistic of conservatives to expect that the pre-welfare-state family can survive in a welfare-state world. Hence, too, the conservative search for (in Bennett’s words) “economic and social policies that support the two-parent family” is bound to be disappointed. “Supporting the family” in Washington parlance is code for subsidies and welfare programs like family leave and day care. But these are the very forces in modern life that strike at the family’s core economic logic, the sexual division of labor, leaving only affection to hold families together—and affection is not always a trustworthy glue.

Through yet another “feedback effect,” the welfare state is also heavily responsible for the balkanization of American society that so worries conservatives. Henry George compared the act of raising a single tariff to hurling a single banana into a cage of monkeys: all the unlucky monkeys shriek and rage until bananas are thrown to them, too. So long as society keeps hurling economic and psychic rewards at everyone who claims victimhood, it is futile for conservatives to demand that America’s warring ethnic, religious, racial, and even sexual minority groups stop their complaining and concentrate instead on what unites them as Americans. If billions of dollars can be extracted by any group that can represent itself as piteous enough, political entrepreneurs will play on their followers’ grievances, mobilizing their resentments, intensifying their group identity, and whipping up suspicion of outsiders.



Conservatives who wish to direct their full attention to “the culture” say that they are attempting to preserve bourgeois values. But they are unlikely to succeed in a world arranged in such a way as to render those virtues at best unnecessary and at worst active nuisances.

What are the bourgeois virtues anyway? The paramount ones are thrift, diligence, prudence, sobriety, fidelity, and orderliness. Compared to the military, saintly, and romantic virtues—zeal, courage, passion, love of beauty, pride, and indifference to worldly goods—it is not a very poetic list. But the prosaic bourgeois virtues are the virtues that settled America (combined, of course, with a canny eye for the quick buck), and they developed into a national norm because they were essential to survival in a country that was, until the 1930’s, simultaneously rich in opportunities and full of terrible dangers from which there was scant protection except for one’s own resources and the help of friends and family.

The opportunities remain, but the dangers have dwindled. Why be thrifty any longer when your old age and health care are provided for, no matter how profligate you may be in your youth? Why be prudent when the state ensures your bank deposits, replaces your flooded-out house, buys all the wheat you can grow? Why be diligent when half your earnings are taken from you and given to the idle? Why be sober when the government runs clinics to cure you of your drug habit as soon as it no longer amuses you? Why be faithful when there are no consequences to leaving your family in search of newer and more exciting pleasures?

True, some virtues linger on after they have outlived their usefulness. True, too, the bourgeois virtues retain much of their usefulness when combined with talent. If diligence can earn you $150,000 a year as an engineer, you will be diligent, even if President Clinton helps himself to half the proceeds. If your mental life is interesting to you even when you are cold sober, those taxpayer-funded clinics will not beckon. But for the less capable and the less resourceful, who always outnumber the more, things look rather different.

If the old American culture and the old American character were rational responses to the riskiness of life, one cannot radically reduce that riskiness and expect the old culture and the old character to persist. The children of a self-made man are different from their father: more optimistic, often more generous, more sensitive, and more tolerant, but less careful, less provident, less hardworking, less self-controlled. In the same way, the citizens of a socially insured America naturally act and think differently from the citizens of a self-reliant America.



Conservatives, who prefer the older character, are fooling themselves in thinking that it can be rebuilt without returning to the older way of life that brought such a character into being. But they are also fooling themselves in thinking that Reagan defined the limits of any conceivable shrinkage of the redistributive and regulating functions of the American government.

The welfare state that conservatives are frightened to fight is a desperately unstable institution. Its costs rise without respite because it tempts people into ever-greater helplessness and dependence on it. The faster its costs rise, the more the economy that supports the welfare state stagnates, in large part because of the disincentives created by the high taxes it requires, but also because its temptations sap the brutal acquisitive drive that propels economies forward.

Thus, as the government sectors of the world’s two dozen welfare states have swelled, their budget deficits have soared, their growth rates have slowed, their unemployment rates have risen, and their poor have behaved in increasingly pathological ways. Comparatively speaking, the trend by which spending outruns resources has not yet gone very far in the United States—only 14 percent of federal revenues are now spent to pay interest on the federal debt, while neighboring Canada pays 35 percent—but the proportion is climbing.

As it does, terrible resentment will be ignited. If taxpayers now think that they send money to Washington and get little in return, wait until one dollar in six or one dollar in five vanishes right off the top to the federal government’s creditors. Pressed by taxes, angered by the declining quality of public services, feeling cheated by government and not knowing why, the voters sink deeper and deeper into the mistrustful mood that characterized the electorate in 1992, when almost one voter in five cast a ballot for the most sinister demagogue to seek the presidency since Huey Long was cut down in 1935.

Some conservatives take comfort in the welfare state’s travails, assuming that the edifice will collapse by itself. Irving Kristol says that we are living through the “end-game” of the welfare state. The editors of the Wall Street Journal cite polls in which a clear majority of Americans claim that they would prefer to receive fewer services from the government and pay less in taxes than receive more and pay more. Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich’s theory is that within the next half-dozen years, the number of people who understand that they are never going to get their money’s worth out of Social Security will for the first time outnumber those for whom the system is a net benefit: the baby boomers will realize that Social Security is a bad deal and will rebel against it. But the ricketiness of the welfare state does not embolden Gingrich to vote against it. Precisely the opposite: it excuses him from doing much of anything while waiting for the inevitable end.



Nothing, however, is inevitable and very few things are even predictable. And even if the welfare state does collapse, it is not preordained that a more enterprising, self-reliant, and virtuous society will emerge from the rubble. For as the United States keeps its commitments to the old with ever-heavier impositions on the young; as it tends the sick with invisible taxes on the healthy; as it hastens the promotion in the labor force of blacks and Hispanics with laws that penalize whites and Asians; as it supports the poor in ways that abuse the neighborhoods and schools that formerly belonged to the middle class—as it does all this, a lot of free-floating intergroup animosity will be released into the atmosphere. Animosity is always someone’s opportunity. In 1992 Patrick Buchanan hoped it would be his; he happened to be wrong, but next time he, or someone like him, may come a little closer to being right.

Anticipating this dangerous outcome, conservatives should be acting now to avoid it, by doing what the conservatives of the 1950’s did—discarding all consideration of what the public at the moment wants to hear, and trying to prepare its mind to respond intelligently to the crisis ahead.

Such a course of action may demand perhaps too much of Republican politicians, but conservative intellectuals are another matter. They should be at work on something a little more ambitious than the Republican party’s next campaign manifesto. They should be showing the public the necessary connection between the social pathologies it loathes and fears and the social programs it still rather likes—and not just the programs for the poor that have created the underclass, but also the broader policies and laws that have corroded the economic functions of the family, set ethnic groups at one another’s throats in pursuit of set-asides and special favors, outlawed the expression of moral outrage at irregular conduct, and diminished the necessity of thrift.

Conservatism was never supposed to be a sunny political ideology or an easy sell. It was always a doctrine for the tough-minded. But the Reagan interlude turned conservative heads. It misled conservatives into thinking that most Americans were with them—not just casually or accidentally, but fundamentally, even when conservative ideology might deny them some benefit out of the Treasury or morally condemn something it would give them pleasure to do. And as conservatives have discovered the uncomfortable fact that the people are not really with them—not at the moment, at least—they have tried to adapt to the popular will, sacrificing in the process their old hostility to Big Government.

Twelve years of twisting and struggling to escape this trap have just entangled conservatives ever more deeply in it. Is there a way out? Only one: conservative intellectuals will have to care less about the immediate electoral prospects of the Republican party and more about telling unpalatable truths—in the hope of making those truths prevail to the point of becoming the conventional political wisdom of the future.

About the Author

David Frum is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for National Review Online.

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