The Problem With Small Government Conservatives

Simon Wren-LewisSimon Wren-Lewis wrote a great article today, The Imaginary World of Small State People. It is about this conservative notion that because they want a small government just for the sake of having a small government, liberals must want a big government just for the sake of having a big government. According to Wren-Lewis, there was a time when there were people on the left (in Europe anyway) who wanted a large government for its own sake. I’m not sure such people have ever much existed here in the United States — except for the explicit communists, who have never been a large enough group to think much of.

What definitely is true is that for my entire life, people on the left have been in favor of making “a more perfect union” by whatever means works. And that makes people on the left simple pragmatists. Maybe that is a problem. Maybe that’s why we were so susceptible to the con that was the New Democrats. One thing is for sure: the right is highly ideological and without an ideology to counter that, we are toothless in a turf war. If you have people who argue that the government should be destroyed on one side, and people who think the government should be whatever size is reasonable on the other, it should not be surprising that you end up with a government that is far too small.

There is another aspect of Wren-Lewis’ article that I disagree with. I don’t think that conservatives actually want a small government. They certain say that they want one. But when it comes to big government in the military, policing, and the bedroom, they seem to think the bigger the better. And let’s not forget that it just doesn’t cost that much money to feed poor people. You can serve up a whole lot of meals for the cost of a single roughly $100 million F-35.

But Wren-Lewis is dead on about the rhetoric of the small government conservatives. He correctly noted that most people really don’t care about the size of the government as an end in itself. (This includes many conservative voters.) He puts forth four problems he has with the small government types, but they are really all the same: the small government people are disingenuous. They don’t look at proposals on the merits because they are blinded by ideology. And they don’t look at evidence, because when you have an ideology, you don’t need no stinking evidence.

More concerning is the way that conservatives try to convince everyone that their policies work through pure force of will. Wren-Lewis quoted Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and political commentator Janan Ganesh claiming that the liberals are going to lose big-time now that everyone sees that their austerity plans didn’t hurt the way everyone said they would. Except, no. Austerity in the United Kingdom since 2010 could easily have cut GDP by 5%. And cuts to social programs have inflicted enormous pain on the poorer classes.

I think Wren-Lewis gets the reasons why the small government cheerleaders don’t see the problem:

So how can small state people have the audacity to claim otherwise? Perhaps it reflects the power of an ideology that its protagonists want to see no evil. Perhaps it is because those hurt by austerity somehow do not count. But the claim that Osborne’s cuts have been such a success that they will cause a “deeper intellectual wound to the left than we currently understand” is simply delusional. These are fantasy ideas from those living in an imaginary world, while in reality the policies they support do serious harm.

What bothers me is that there is some sense to what the conservatives are doing. Eventually, economies do heal — even ones that are totally mismanaged. So if the George Osbornes of the world (like Margaret Thatcher before them) can just hold out long enough and avoid admitting that they have inflicted great pain in the name of hurting the macroeconomy even more, they can be rewarded. And I have no idea how you defend against this, other than to wait for the rich to so thoroughly destroy the social contract that the poorer classes start to push back.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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