“Small government” conservatism? NOT!

The quarrel between liberals and “conservatives” (in the degraded modern sense) is about the ends of government, not about its size.

Even otherwise-sensible journalists are sometimes lazy enough to report as fact the claim of Republican “conservatives” (a misnomer, as applied to irresponsible radicals) to favor “small government.”

Of course, that’s not true when it comes to the use of government to enforce small-minded small-town morality, especially in sexual matters. Whatever the libertarian fringe thinks, the actual position of actual conservatives in office and at the voting booth has been consistently anti-reproductive choice, anti-gay, and in favor of the War on Some Drugs, not including alcohol or tobacco. And when it comes to the most dramatic exercise of state power – incarceration – conservatives have been the leading cheerleaders for expansion and are now (with some honorable but politically powerless exceptions) the main barrier to shrinkage.

But what about the federal budget? Surely conseratives are in favor of shrinking that.

Actually, no. More than half the people who work for the federal government are either uniformed military or civilian employees of DoD and the other security agencies. There was a time – under Bob Taft – when Washington Republicans opposed defense spending, partly as a carry-over from their flirtation with America First in the 1930s. (That led most of the GOP on Capitol Hill to oppose the draft in 1940, without which we might well have lost WWII.) But ever since the GOP has been squarely in the pocket of the defense lobby. And of course – with rare exceptions having to do with the presence of hated Democrats in the White House – “conservative” Republicans always love war, the most wasteful and destructive government spending of all.

Even on “industrial policy,” the GOP position has more to do with campaign contributions and political alliances than with principle. Subsidies for nuclear power, including an arbitrary limit on liability for disasters? They’re for ’em. (As it happens, so am I.) Eminent domain? They hate it, except when it comes time to build the Keystone Pipeline, which couldn’t be built without taking lots of private property for private use. “Conservative” Southern state and local governments bid feverishly against one another with subsidies and tax breaks to attract industry from other states; this game of beggar-thy-neighbor is futile in terms of creating jobs, but it’s superb in generating campaign money.

“Small government” is a far more popular slogan than it deserves to be. But the people now calling themselves “conservative” can’t reasonably lay claim to it.

Footnote There are, of course, a few libertarians who actually would like to see the role of government in society shrink. But of course even they don’t want government to stop enforcing the property rights in land that governments created, without – as Robert Nozick pointed out years ago – any plausible justification. Most of them don’t favor reining in the excesses of “intellectual property,” either, or abolishing corporate limited liability (a clear violation of natural right when it means protecting tortfeasors and con artists from their victims). So libertarian “small government” means, in practice, mostly that governments should keep helping property-owners against the rest of us but stop protecting the rest of us against property-owners (e.g. by preventing profitable environmental insults) or – of course – helping the poor.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

46 thoughts on ““Small government” conservatism? NOT!”

  1. Although the GOP establishment clearly luvs their weapons-peddler campaign contributions and the pork-barrel spending that fuels them, a big part of the way this mess happened is that the Tea Party really is against excessive military spending.

    This is not surprising – right-populism in America has pretty much always been isolationist (the Cold War was the exception, not the norm), and both the Ron Paul tendency and the Kochtopus have been against wasting money on the military, often much more outspokenly so than the Democrats (who luv those skilled blue-collar jobs in weapons factories in their districts).

    The whole point of sequestration was that the military cuts were meant to make it unacceptable to the Republicans, for the same reason that the domestic cuts make it unacceptable to the Democrats. Unfortunately the Tea Party thought “Republicans give up wasteful military spending, Dems give up wasteful domestic spending” was a great deal to cut spending. And the Tea Party are in charge of the congressional GOP now.

    1. I don’t think it would be unfortunate to give up wasteful military spending and wasteful domestic spending. I think that would be a splendid plan.

      Now, like belling that cat, who will tell us what is wasteful, and get Congress to agree to give it up?

    2. right-populism in America has pretty much always been isolationist

      Teddy Roosevelt would like to have a word with you. A whole lot of gilded-age and colonial-expansion figures are lined up behind him.

      1914 – 1942 does not equal “pretty much always”.

      1. Let us all agree now that GROVER Cleveland was our best President and matched in his justice and mercy only by Christ himself.

        (But was he, properly speaking, right-populist?)

    3. “a big part of the way this mess happened is that the Tea Party really is against excessive military spending”

      Objection. Asserted without evidence.

    4. And the Tea Party are in charge of the congressional GOP now.

      Both the Speaker of the House Mr. Boehner and the GOP Leader of the Senate Mr. McConnell, are despised by Tea Partiers, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

      The Tea Partiers have enough influence among the GOP Congress to cause a lot of trouble, to threaten primary challenges and thereby put pressure on members, and occasionally to get one of their own elected.

      But to say that they’re “in charge” is a real stretch.

      1. Their entire goal is destruction and obstruction. True, they can’t pass legislation – but they don’t want to, either. So long as Boehner maintains the Hastert rule, the Tea Party is indeed in charge; similarly in the Senate, a system of holds and filibustering opportunities gives the Tea Party an awful lot of power to obstruct. And all of that isn’t even counting the fear of getting primaried by the Tea Party that afflicts so many non-Tea-Party Republicans.

          1. Boehner suspended the Hastert Rule, Budget measures aren’t subect to filibuster, and global economic turmoil was too big and too obvious a price for them to prevail. But in general they want to cripple government and to slash social services (except for those going out in the immediate future to the elderly), and they’ve been completely successful in the first and rather successful in the second.

          2. Well, they did and they didn’t. Yes, they walked away with nothing by way of winnings but then they lost nothing and kept their very significant gains from past negotiations. Essentially, the Democrats seem to have accepted something very close to the Ryan budget as a baseline starting point. Partly that’s because Obama liked the cuts in the sequester just as much as did the Republicans but partly I think they’ve been very successful in terms of setting the parameters of what’s acceptable politically.

            If the framing had been that if the Democrats had “won” then some cherished corporate pork would have been cut or takes raised on the 1% that would have been different. But, really, the Democrats have become so closely aligned with corporate interests and Wall Street that there’s very little that the Democratic leadership wants that the Republicans don’t also want. And there’s nothing that the Relublicans care about protecting that the Democrats are willing to hurt. Basically the game is rigged so the people who care about, say, reining in Wall Street or preserving the social safety net can’t win, conservatives can’t lose and the only question is how much the right will win in any particular confrontation.

          3. What Mitch said. Also they got betrayed by the quisling Boehner, which is worth more to them than the collapse of the global economy.

  2. More like “fortunately”.

    But, go on and on about the horrors of reducing government spending to where it was just a few years ago. It earns you so much credibility with people who don’t suffer from amnesia.

    1. I’m sorry, Brett, are you replying to this thread or are you cross-threaded? If here, what are you actually replying to?

    2. As a percentage of GDP, federal spending is about what it was during the Reagan administration. 1985: 22.8%. 2012: 22.8%.

    3. If we didn’t have the Baby Boom generation retiring, and an aging population which causes dramatic increases in entitlement spending, this could be reasonable. But we do, so it’s intellectually dishonest. But that’s what we expect, I guess, from Republicans and their apologists.

  3. including an arbitrary limit on liability for disasters

    Quite right. I’m on the opposite side of this from you, but you’re still a liberal on this because you’re prepared to acknowledge and honestly evaluate the cost. Right-wing justifications for nuclear power and the military always seem to involve pretending that they don’t cost anything. The government is urged to “allow” nuclear power, as though a free market would ever support it.

    I’m not sure it’s quite right, though, to complain about the Republicans’ lack of ideological purity, and the suggestion that they’re not real conservatives smacks of concern trollism. Anyway, regardless of ideology, politicians going to be responsive to their constituencies. Another difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are generally willing to acknowledge who their constituents are.

    1. A price we pay for our system is that “constituencies” are not homogeneous. The far right has done well at isolating a constituency that can be managed (manipulated?) much better than we on the left can control our herd of cats. Thus, we have to “respond to our constituencies,” which are diverse and disorganized, while the far right has a smooth-running machine in place to manage the constituency they need to further the goals of the plutocrats and zealots.

    2. Thanks for hammering on this point. Most of the public has no idea that there’s a liability cap for nuclear disasters, enforced by the government. Most conservatives have never been challenged to justify this obvious government intervention, least of all the ones who insist that the nuclear industry is over-regulated.

      If my land gets contaminated by a radioactive release from the nuclear plant at Ft. Calhoun NE, realistically I will get zero compensation and so will my neighbors. I wonder if that would affect their support for Steve King, alleged champion of small government.

      1. Realistically ,you probably will be compensated, but by the taxpayer rather than the plant owner. This doesn’t solve the underlying and huge problem of perverse incentives, what with the plant owner having an out, but the track record suggests you will receive compensation.

        1. I’m not sure that’s true anymore. If recent experience is any guide, yes, you receive generous compensation if you live in the 11 states of the former Confederacy and maybe you’ll get something if you’re in the Midwest. But if you experience a natural or man-made disaster in any other part of the country and especially someplace like New York then it’s just “waste, fraud and abuse”.

    3. I guess I’m still trying to reconcile Mark being for “an arbitrary limit on liability for disasters” from nuclear plants, then being in favor of “abolishing corporate limited liability (a clear violation of natural right when it means protecting tortfeasors and con artists from their victims)” unlike, as was pointed out, many libertarians who want government big enough to protect property rights and immoral corporate conduct.

      Then there’s the whole “marijuana needs close control” while we can trust the nukes juxtaposition. Both are complex systems. One fails “soft” and the other fails about as “hard” as it gets short of nuclear war. Fukushima is a bleeding wound on the environment, unlikely to be staunched for decades.

      I’ll certainly heartily agree with the humor value of anti-big government freaks wanting to impose Uncle Sam on the pregnant bodies of women, (mostly) fight a “drug war” that use the Constitution to “cleanse” it’s leftover cultural war from the 1960s, including reinventing racism as a present day myth, and never, ever saw a tax cut they didn’t want to hand to business despite an utter lack of evidence of results.

      I do have a certain amount of respect for Dwight Eisenhower, who you can’t say didn’t warn us when he was finishing his public service. Current day conservatives might do well to study him if they want a formula to undermine the increasingly Republican-Lite flavor found in many Democratic Party initiatives these days. A candidate like that could steal lots of votes back…

      Except for that race issue, the Dulles brothers, and not insisting on an alternative running partner in 56, of course. Hard to not gag on those. No Ikes on deck in the line-up I can see. They seem to have a warehouse full of crazy over at Republican Inc., so the common sense of toning things down is unlikely until after fall 2014. Will the Dems give them a run for the money or just cave again in the midterm?

      1. Mark never says that he’s opposed to corporate limited liability. He says, correctly, that it violates natural right, as they are typically defined, but much of the post contains the implication that he is not a hardcore believer in natural rights as a trump to all other considerations.

        And you are clearly off the mark when you say he believes that we can just trust nuclear power operators. Nothing about being in favor of limited liability for those operators implies a lack of regulation and close control.

        Overall, you need to do a better job of reading what he actually writes.

        1. “Nothing about being in favor of limited liability for those operators implies a lack of regulation and close control.”

          Reality intrudes, J. Michael. That’s exactly way things are, with little signs of changing. I detect nothing except booterism for this as a “good idea” in Mark’s statement, which may not have been as definitive as he might make it if he were addressing nuclear power specifically, I suppose.

          Of course, there’s the NRC, etc, but the track record on nuclear power is disappointing and underwritten by massive tax-payer subsidies under Dems and Reps alike. Nuclear power is the poster child for big government as a bad idea — even if you think big government has a place in our society as I firmly do. My reaction is to Mark’s position that we should pour any more money down that rat-hole. It’s dangerous and that’s just the beginning of the problems with it.

          Sorry my critique/tongue-in-cheek wasn’t precise enough for you.

          1. There’s a difference between subsidising nuclear power then and now. Then, you could argue that it needed a chance given the possible benefit of cheap, safe, reliable, carbon-free baseload electricity. The only parts of this that nuclear has delivered on are carbon-free, and reasonably well on reliable baseload. It’s conclusively shown itself to be unsafe (by the public’s standard of safe) and expensive. We now have cheaper, safer, and more reliable renewable alternatives (with a small problem over baseload). There’s no case for a second nuclear bite at the cherry.

          2. Your critique didn’t lack for precision; it lacked for accuracy. You misrepresented what Mark said and only continue down that path by arguing, without evidence, that his comment about a specific element of nuclear policy means that he’s fine with all of the current system. That’s dishonest.

          3. J. Michael,
            I think you’re taking my comment quite expansively, certainly far more seriously than it was made.

            I don’t doubt a bit that Mark’s view is more complex than he elaborated on himself in the original text I commented on. It was a tangent and my comment was a further tangent. I’m still curious if he’s really all that cozy with nuclear power as it seems off the cuff — which doesn’t mean I’m trying to make an argument that he’s loving every minute of it, either. On the other hand, Mark could clarify that if he chose and I doubt trying to persuade you will stop any nukes, which is where my energy goes on such matters.

            I’ll throw you a nugget to play with, one of those sparkly things certain folks throw out to distract you from the fact that the science here is not all that certain — and the government’s not been all that interested in knowing…
            http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/opinion/fear-vs-radiation-the-mismatch.html?hp
            Have a good one. I read all sides. My opinion is based on the facts as I know them. People cozy with nuclear power worry me and I like to converse with them about why they might feel that way. But in a good-humored way that takes into account that no one really knows..or really has much more than snippets of science to support their position. Arguing that the results of the Hiroshima studies apply in such a generalizable fashion is matter for public relations, not science in my book, especially given the problematic course they’ve taken over the decades is a questionable argument in my book. But that’s a matter for a long discussion…and I just wanted to cheer you up, dour fellow.

          4. Mike –

            Don’t fault J Michael for his over-literalism. He’s got* Aspberger’s Syndrome and probably can’t help himself.

            *self-indentified, in the comments of this blog & others…

  4. There is already an arbitrary limit on liability for disasters – the value of the company. If that’s too high then define a limit in those terms, with a minimum to prevent shenanigans, in those terms.

    1. No, the limit is the limit of the insurance policy. That’s why I’m not allowed to drive my car without liability insurance: if I cause an accident, the victims are entitled to more than my entire net worth.

      The nuclear industry is a special case: they are self-insured (commercial insurers won’t touch them), AND the government limits total liability to the size of their self-insurance fund. If they have to pay out, they lose nothing but the self-insurance fund—they keep all their other assets.

      1. Don,

        You are correct of course, and I didn’t make my meaning clear. Sorry.

        What I was trying to say was that even if the limit you describe did not exist, the value of the company constitutes an arbitrary limit on liability. There is no reason at all to think that the potential damage from a nuclear accident will not exceed that limit. Of course this is true of corporations in general, but few have the chance to quite so much damage.

        1. That’s not really accurate, though. Insurance policies don’t contribute (substantially) to the net worth of a company, but they can still pay out large sums to those injured by the company. Smaller companies have greater-than-net-worth incidents that are covered by insurance all the time.

          In many jurisdictions (West, Texas excluded) companies are required to carry insurance sufficient to cover their more obvious claim possibilities as a condition of operating. I guess that’s big government too.

          The whole “small government” thing is also clearly baloney in light of all the conservative-beloved regulations of personal behavior. Perhaps what they mean is small in visible dollars.

          1. Paul,

            I think Don’s point is that the nuclear power operators self-insure, so there is no insurance company involved.

          2. In the early days of the nuclear energy craze it was obvious that adequate insurance was unaffordable and probably unobtainable at any price. The government intervened to allow the industry to operate with very low levels of what is essentially heavily subsidized self insurance and they are simply not liable for anything above what we now can see is a trivial amount of money.

            In the event of a massive nuclear accident (including pollution of huge aquifers with radioactive waste) the losses of the tortfeasor would be limited to the trivial liability below the cap. Nobody has any additional liability. It doesn’t matter how horrific the losses or how egregious the wrongdoing. Nobody pays. One again proving that the best investment you can make is a Congresscritter.

        2. Whatever that limit is, then the taxpayers get stuck with the rest…at least what the government is willing to pay out in addition to claims paid up to the limit by the self-insurance fund. And keep in mind that that fund is small enough and the damage from an accident like Fukushima or Chernobyl so persistent that all major accidents will fall primarily at the risk of us all.

          And what assets besides a customer list and a radiated and unusable public threat of a ex-power plant will an operator have? It’s other nuclear plants? Yeah, the value of those will be tanking following the accident that got them into the deep glowing doo-doo.

          This “insurance” is a political sham to cover the massive subsidies and government guarantees that ordinary investors won’t touch. It’s meant to mollify anxious neighbors and avoid too many questions about what the actual economic damage an event like Fukushima could inflict.

    1. Ayn Rand was a gushing admirer of a psychopathic kidnapper/murderer. Ayn Rand was NUTS. Piss poor writer to boot.
      just sayin’

  5. I’d think local government is an esp. fruitful place to look for evidence on this point. We now have four years of experience with undivided Tea Party government—complete control by politicians who self-describe as Tea Partiers—in a large number of municipalities and counties, and, while as far as I know no rigorous work on the question has been published, my impression is that the record is in general exactly as Kleiman describes. And their constituents don’t seem particularly bothered.

  6. Professor Kleiman and I both follow Herbert Spencer in believing that any theoretical God worth his salt would bequest The Right to Use the Earth equally among all His children (us).

    Equity, therefore, does not permit property in land.

    Now, I never took Professor Kleiman to be a fellow Spencer-follower, but I always knew he was cleverer than most!

  7. I learned that most conservatives don’t really favor shrinking the federal budget during the Bush II Administration. During Bush’s first term, inflation adjusted federal spending grew at a faster rate than any time since the Johnson Administration. And there is no point asserting that Bush wasn’t a “real” conservative. If Bush had been willing to act against the wishes of his conservative base, Harriet Meiers would be sitting on the Supreme Court today.

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