Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Big Government/Small Government

Ezra Klein claims that there’s a notable asymmetry in the ideological contest over the size of government. An “abstract preference” for smaller government, he argues, is an integral feature of modern conservatism. That doesn’t mean that conservatives always prefer less rather than more government—they take an expansive view of governmental authority on matters that they think fall properly within government’s purview, like national security. But Klein is on firm ground when he suggests that conservatism incorporates an anti-statist presumption; all other things being equal, conservatives prefer that the scope of government authority be smaller rather than larger because they regard every expansion of state power as a regrettable contraction of individual liberty.

Using himself as a test case, Klein argues that no countervailing abstract preference for bigger government is integral to modern liberalism. On his view, liberals regard neither limited nor expansive government as an imperative of political morality. That leaves them free to make decisions about the scope of governmental authority on a case-by-case basis largely on technocratic grounds. The political argument over the size government, then, is a contest between doctrinaire conservative ideologues, and empirically-minded liberal pragmatists (my emphasis):
“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."
I don’t doubt that Klein is accurately characterizing his own views, or at least his own view of what kinds of considerations determine what his substantive views end up being. And there’s no denying that he’s embellishing one of liberals' favorite themes, viz. that they in general, and Obama in particular, are level-headed pragmatists having to contend with sputtering Republican ideologues.

But it’s hard to deny that a presumption in favor of democratic statism is part of liberalism’s ideological heritage. That presumption was prominently displayed in a line that I can’t resist quoting once more from FDR’s Second Inaugural Address that characterized the New Deal’s mission as making “the exercise of all power more democratic . . . [by] bring[ing] private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government” (my emphasis). Just as conservatives now presume that any expansion of government authority diminishes liberty, New Dealers used to presume that any expansion of democratic government facilitates the realization of social justice. They couldn’t help thinking that it was presumptively irrational and unjust to hold the material well-being of the majority of Americans hostage to the unintended consequences of private economic decisions when it's within our collective capacity to make economic conditions answer to the public’s ethical and political values.

Have liberals really stopped thinking that, or freed themselves of the ideological reflexes they developed when they did? I doubt it. And I'm not sure it would be entirely a good thing if they did.

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