Some impressive commentators are weighing in about whether promotion of small government versus big government is ideologically or practically driven. Ezra Klein makes an interesting, but misdirected, point that small government proponents see small government as an end in itself — i.e., they are ideologically driven — whereas proponents of more government simply want “larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.”
“But like a lot of people, I actually don’t have an abstract preference for either bigger government or smaller government. If we made the Defense Department a lot smaller, or reformed the health-care system so that we were getting a deal more akin to European countries, or got the federal government out of farm subsidies, that would be fine with me, even as the government would shrink. A lot of conservatives believe, I think, that their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s philosophical preference for big government. But that’s not true: Their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s practical preference for larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.”
So liberals are sensible, practical proponents of whatever works in the best John Dewey / FDR tradition. Conservatives are wild-eyed ideologues committed to an end without regard to the real world and the hard work of pursuing what actually works. It is a narrative that defines the liberal inability to comprehend conservatives.
Indeed, ironically, this narrative — that conservatives embrace certain beliefs that are impervious to empirical findings while liberals are essentially wide-ranging and creative experimenters — explains how liberals routinely find ideological zealotry where there is none, sinister motives such as racism where there is none, and even threatening and violent inclinations where there are none. In short, the liberal narrative about conservatives is itself counter-factual and typically impervious to empirical findings.
Conservatives do not seek smaller government simply because government should be smaller. Conservatives seek smaller government because there are competing institutions for achieving social goods, and government — from the experience and observation of conservatives — tends to be less efficient at achieving these social goods than other institutions.
It’s that simple. The impulse to use government to achieve a desired social goal is not per se bad — the social goal may often indeed be desirable. But that impulse may well be blind to the ineptitude of government in actually achieving that goal.
I read somewhere recently that a pundit was debating health care with his British friend, and the British friend said, you Americans miss the point about health care: health care is so important that the government must take responsibility for it. And the pundit replied, no, precisely because health care is so important, we must entrust it to our most efficient delivery mechanisms — and that is private markets with properly calibrated incentives, not the government. (That’s my recollected paraphrase.)
I remember the nationwide health care debates leading up to the vote on Obamacare. I remember my brother in Texas telling me of standing in line at a federal office with people grousing about the inefficiency and incompetence of the federal workers dispatching whatever federal program was at issue, and my brother turned to one of the grousers and said, “and these are the people you want controlling our health care?”
An anecdote, and only that — but illustrative of the actual experience of many conservatives who are skeptical of any claim that government workers will dispense a critical social benefit like health care better than private markets.
How long, literally how many decades, have we been hearing of the waste, fraud, and abuse — amounting to tens of billions of dollars — in the government’s Medicare and Medicaid programs? Every administration — including this one — resolves to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in these programs. And you start to get the feeling, after decades, that maybe waste, fraud, and abuse are endemic to government programs.
Conservatives are not “anti-government.” Conservatives are pro-efficiency. No private sector enterprise in the history of the planet has ever been capable of sustaining tens of billions of dollars of waste, fraud, and abuse. One thinks of high-profile fraud like Enron — and then one dreams of commensurate retribution for vastly greater government squandering.
Conservatives recognize that private markets are not perfect, that some regulation to redress market abuses is appropriate, and that no market affecting so many Americans — like health care or mutual funds — is or should be free of any government regulation. But that regulation must be focused on calibrating private market incentives, not on a government bureaucrat dictating what is best for us.
Kendrick MacDowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.