Conservatives and “Limited Government”

My friend Will Wilkinson has announced that he and his boss Brink Lindsey are leaving the Cato Institute. Because Brink and Will were the standard-bearers for liberaltarianism at Cato, their departure has prompted discussion of whether their departure constitutes a “purge” of left-leaning scholars at the Institute. I’m not in a position to comment on those rumors, but their departure has inspired a number of writers to declare the failure of the liberaltarian project. Probably the most thoughtful take from the conservatives is this piece by Joseph Lawler:

Ron Paul, of course, is one of the very few libertarian officeholders with any national cachet at all. And the Tea Party is the most dynamic anti-big government political movement in modern American politics. For better or for worse, Ron Paul and the Tea Parties represent the best things going for the libertarian movement of which Cato is a key institution. That Lindsey is not able to find common cause with best successes of libertarianism in the national arena suggests that Cato is probably wise to want to distance its brand from Lindsey’s liberaltarianism, if that is in fact what it is doing.

Is the Tea Party “the most dynamic anti-big government political movement in modern American politics?” I think it’s helpful here to unpack the concept of “anti-big government,” because the right uses it in a peculiar and rather perverse fashion.

In the conservative (and fusionist) worldview, government activities are evaluated using a simplistic “size of government” metric that treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used. This has some unfortunate results. It means that cutting children’s health care spending is just as good as cutting a dollar from subsidies for wealthy corporations. And since wealthy corporations typically have lobbyists and poor children don’t, the way this works out in practice is that conservative politicians staunchly oppose the former while letting the latter slide.

Worse, mainstream conservatives give programs involving the military and law enforcement a free pass. Conservatives vociferously (and correctly) oppose giving the FCC expanded power over the Internet, but they actively supported the NSA’s much more comprehensive and intrusive scheme of domestic surveillance. Conservatives support a massive expansion of government power at our southern border to restrict the freedom of Mexican migrants. They seem unconcerned by the fact that we have more people in government-run prisons than any other nation on Earth.

This distinction makes no sense. When American soldiers gun down Iraqi civilians and blow up a van that comes to rescue the survivors, that’s a government program. When a SWAT team conducts a military-style raid on the home of an innocent Maryland mayor and kills his dogs, that’s a government program too. Obviously, law enforcement and national defense are important functions of government, but these highly coercive government programs should be the subject of more public scrutiny, not less.

Personally I’m not interested in “limited government” as an end in itself, but as a means to greater individual liberty. I’m opposed to government programs that waste taxpayer dollars because higher taxes restrict my freedom. But I’m much more opposed to government programs that use taxpayer dollars to restrict freedom directly. I’m not interested in joining a “limited government” movement that considers the two equivalent. And I’m definitely not interested in being part of a movement that gives torture and preemptive war a free pass under the heading of “national defense” while it focuses instead on fighting the tyranny of SCHIP and unemployment insurance.

Update: To address James Poulos’s point here and Lawler’s tweets, I’m obviously guilty of generalizing here. Some conservatives, such as Ron Paul, really are committed to limited government with just a few blind spots. It’s a mistake to treat conservatism as monolithic. Point taken. But remember that the original subject of discussion was the viability of a left-libertarian alliance. Lawler wrote that libertarianism is “clearly more marketable to conservatives, even social conservatives, than it is to liberals.” But of course, the reality is that the liberal side of the political spectrum is just as diverse as the conservative side. And libertarians can make common cause with sympathetic liberals just as they can with like-minded conservatives.

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19 Responses to Conservatives and “Limited Government”

  1. Greg N. says:

    I need to know whether Will and Brink were pushed out, because I need to know whether to pay attention to Cato anymore or not.

  2. David says:

    If we take the Heritage Foundation to be representative of the archetypal conservative, then conservatives do care that we have so many people in prisons. After all, Heritage set up , for example.

    And I support tight border security. History shows us, I think, that freedom will not long persist without two things – security from attack and strong rule of law, (appropriate law). And securing the border is about both. Even if it was 50 feet of police state, it would seem a small price to pay for thousands of miles of peace and freedom after it – and it isn’t, and doesn’t need to be, a police state. It just needs to be a real border.

    I think you contradict yourself as well – conservatives obviously do NOT evaluate government programs with a simplistic “size of government” metric, otherwise, as you say, we would not be in favor of a strong border security presence. That’s an important metric, but it obviously isn’t the only one. Perhaps we aren’t as different as you think.

  3. Adam Thierer says:

    Sharp piece, Tim. You could have also mentioned how conservatives can’t even stick to their own first principles when it comes to busting the budget — which a Democrat, Bill Clinton, was finally getting under control. Nothing “conservative” about bankrupting our children.

    And don’t even get me started on how their support of the drug war betrays every principle in the book. A typical conservative would support your right to put a shotgun in a six year old kid’s hands,* but not the right of a grown adult to smoke a joint. And then, as you note, they’d support a para-military force being sent into your home to stop you from smoking that joint! Basically, if the cops raid your house to take away your Bible or “Best of Glenn Beck” VHS tapes, then, by all means, you gun ’em down, cowboy! But if they come for your dope or Playboys, well then, you need to submit to the authorities and go directly to jail.

    I don’t fricking get it.

    * Before the conservo-freaks come after me… For the record, my Dad let me shoot my first gun at age 6. It was awesome. Wish I could find a place to take my boy — who just turned 6 — out to shoot!

  4. Sharl says:

    Regarding the Tea Party movement – back in April, those Code Pink peacenik activists traded in their activists’ banners and played journalists for a day (did a pretty good job too, IMO), interviewing participants at a Tea Party rally in Washington DC.

    As CP discovered, and other thorough reporting has verified since, the TP movement is definitely NOT a political monolith, at least where matters of national “defense” and foreign policy are concerned. To be sure, there are a lot of folks who fall in the Ron Paul camp – they tended to be younger, or at least that was my impression. However, a lot of other folks are basically relabeled Cold War Republicans and Reagan Democrats, for whom the sky is the limit for DoD funding. Their fondness for budget cuts is limited to social services for the modern equivalent of Reagan’s “strapping young bucks” and fictional welfare queens pulling down more than $150,000 a year at the expense of decent, honest, hardworking taxpayers.

    On a separate note, does the first sentence of your last paragraph read the way you intended, especially the final bit? (Or maybe it’s me, due to the lateness of the hour.) I’m pretty sure you are not cheering for “means to the end of freedom,” but it kinda-sorta reads that way to me.

  5. Brandon says:

    The only people who TRULY care about limited gov’t and freedom are libertarians. Left and Right just use “freedom” for certain favored causes and wanna restrict freedom on others. Of course, they never say in that many words, “We’re against freedom on this.” They hide it behind nonsense like “protecting marriage.” And the Left doesn’t even USE the freedom rhetoric! They use bullshit like “social justice” or “fairness” to justify pro-freedom stances like gay marriage or prochoice. I guess they foolishly think “only righties” talk about freedom.

    And right-wingers talk about freedom so much probably because they wanna distract people from the fact that their agenda has a LOT of anti-freedom positions. Or they just wanna fool themselves into thinking they DON’T have an authoritarian bone in their bodies. Isn’t it a little hypocritical and ironic that, oftentimes, the people who talk about “freedom” are the ones who wanna take it away?

  6. Brandon says:

    Wilkinson was a liberaltarian? Huh. I had only heard about the guy about a month ago after a google search and discovered his blog, but he seemed pretty straight-up libertarian to me. So he’s more like a Mike Gravel type?

  7. Sarah Brodsky says:

    I don’t have a problem with government programs giving poor kids stuff they need, and I think redistributing wealth is an appropriate function of government. But–there are good reasons to oppose some programs that spend money on kids, or at least to oppose growing them. Some kids’ program start out doing worthwhile things, then expand to include more people and less crucial services. Poor kids can get crowded out of the programs. It can also get to a point where a kids’ program’s spending is no longer about kids, but instead goes to save adults’ jobs or comply with union demands.

    Of course, opposition to those programs shouldn’t happen at the expense of fighting true injustices.

  8. Rhayader says:

    All of the points Tim raises are great ones, although I think it might be a bit unfair to associate the “Tea Party” as a whole with this sort of mentality. To Sharl’s point, it seems to me that it’s actually a pretty politically diverse group, and they collectively do a fairly good job of de-emphasizing “socially conservative” issues in favor of economic stuff. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of drug warriors and sexual moralists and the like in the Tea Party movement (obviously), but I’m not at all sure that the Tea Party can be described as a group in favor of, say, the drug war.

    And Ron Paul, of course, is very cogent on social issues and, for we non-interventionists, national defense. He’s a strong-border guy, which isn’t even anti-liberty if one acknowledges the need for freedom of legal movement. I like both Lindsey and Wilkinson a lot, and I hope they continue to do great work (Will’s stuff at Economist’s DiA has been really good so far). I definitely tilt toward the liberaltarian mode of thought. But I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with Cato seeking productive work with Ron Paul or Tea Party types either.

  9. Sarah Brodsky says:

    “He’s a strong-border guy, which isn’t even anti-liberty if one acknowledges the need for freedom of legal movement.”

    The thing is, hardly anyone is legally allowed to move from Mexico to the US.

  10. Rhayader says:

    The thing is, hardly anyone is legally allowed to move from Mexico to the US.

    Right, which is what I was hinting at. I’m fine with people saying we need a “strong border”, but only if they’re on board with making it many orders of magnitude easier for people to come over in a legal, documented fashion. Border control should consist of keeping the country secure, not restricting the free movement of peaceful individuals.

  11. Don Marti says:

    At least Cato is still willing to mention “Corporate Welfare” on their web site. But if they really wanted to make an impact in this area, they’d do a monthly piece like this: Archer Daniels Midland: A Case Study In Corporate Welfare and cover corporate welfare in areas other than agribusiness. Most “libertarian” organizations in DC don’t have the budget to stay principled, so they have to make ends meet by publishing twisted libertarian-sounding arguments for rent-seeking.

    Maybe principled liberty-oriented donors should organize a cull. Better a couple of organizations with a solid message than a bunch of corporate welfare seekers talking libertarian and confusing potential supporters.

  12. George Arndt says:

    I don’t think it’s the size of the Government is what really matters. The important thing is to limit some of the things that it can do. (Especially in personal matters) The smallest conceivable government, after all, is a dictatorship!

  13. Marcos El Malo says:

    I still haven’t seen any serious reality based proposals for budget cutting come from the tea party camp. “Cut entitlement spending! Don’t you dare touch my Medicare!” seems to be the gist of it. It’s hard to take the movement as a whole seriously when all it seems capable of is expressing anger, frustration, and fear. (And I suspect that there are certain political players benefiting from the manipulation of those emotions.)

    Regarding the border (including the proposal to create a 50 foot wide “police state”), the basic issue is cost/benefit. To have the hermetically sealed secure border that some people are demanding would cost more than this country can afford, either in money or in civil liberties. The Rule of Law argument for more enforcement is also being pushed to an absurd extreme by those with zero tolerance for illegal immigrants. If they were this excited about ALL the laws, they might also be proposing that we have traffic cops posted on every street corner and every half mile on the highway. You would think they’d at least have the courage of their convictions to turn themselves in for whatever traffic violations they might have committed when no one was around.

    David’s proposal of a 50 foot wide police state ignores the fact that private citizens own much of the land on that border. Shall we sacrifice their liberty so that David need not ever have to look at an immigrant? Anyway, much like the whole border fence idea, this proposal is absurd on many levels that it’s not even worth engaging beyond mentioning the anti-liberty aspect.

    The fact is that border enforcement has improved over the last ten years, and the rates of illegal immigration show this. I suspect that this is another issue that certain politicians are using to manipulate emotions for their own gain. When, if ever, will the border be secure enough? For the zero tolerance crowd the answer will be never. A small noisy minority are holding up long overdue immigration reform.

  14. D says:

    “…government activities are evaluated using a simplistic “size of government” metric that treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used. ”

    Total straw man. Any thoughtful right-winger will have a hierarchy of where cutting should begin and how it should continue. This view is perfectly consistent with believing the “size of government” is too large. Where to cut, how much from certain places and what you want the total to be are not mutually exclusive ideas. Just because someone says gov’t is too big doesn’t mean the view doesn’t breakdown into specifics. It’s just something most people agree on, so it’s said a lot.

  15. Nick says:

    How can we find out if Will and Brink were pushed out? They were two of my favorites at Cato, and if this is some sort of policy change I want to know so I can stop supporting them.

  16. Nick: email Will and ask him!

  17. Scooby Dude says:

    The problem with the whole “how should Libertarians align themselves politically” debate is that people are poorly defining Libertarianism. To wit: people who believe strongly in low taxes, small government, and small/no federal budget deficets, but who don’t give a rat’s ass about the drug war, gay marriage, the right to die/physician assisted suicide, torture, or the government spying on your emails and phone calls are NOT NOT NOT Libertarians. They are Free Marketers, or Economic Libertarians, or some other label. And these people obviously will make their political home in the Republican Party and the Conservative movement. However a TRUE Libertarian, who cares in similar measure about both Economic AND Civil Liberties, will likely make alliances of convenience with one side, then the other, depending on the issue at hand and the needs of the day.

  18. James Reese says:

    No 50 feet of police state on our southern border is needed to stop illegal immigration. The illegal immigrants come for jobs. Simply fine every individual and corporation $50,000 per day for every illegal immigrant they employ, and 99% of all illegal immigration will end in six months or less.

  19. I think it would have been (is) possible for Paul to find commonality with the liberaltarian faction of libertarianism. Granted, reduced government is the ideal for all libertarians, in the sense that we have a bloated and inefficient government now. Paul has commented numberous times that he respects the Obama Administration at least not playinhg political games and being honest about what it believes and proposes. God help us all however if “being honest” ever becomes a reason for political union.

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