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The Political Landscape: voters still like bread and circuses
Posted by: Jon Henke on Tuesday, February 21, 2006

In a previous post, a commenter wrote that, instead of thinking of the best way to levy taxes, we ought to "think about the best way to cut government down to a proper size". Now, I'm in favor of cutting the size of government, but I think libertarians need to be reminded of a practical problem with that ideal. Namely, that the public generally likes big government.

Oh, sure, they may complain about taxes, pork and other easy targets or painful reminders of the cost of government, but they generally like — and vote for — the programs that constitute the bulk of the "size of government" about which we complain.

In a review of Bruce Bartlett's new book, Impostor : How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, Kevin Drum makes a point that practical libertarians need to take to heart when considering the political landscape...
This is the reality that true-believer conservatives—Bartlett among them—don't want to believe. For all the trash talking from right-wing leaders like Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay, the fact is that America is only a moderately conservative country.
...
Americans may not be ready for European-style soft socialism, but poll after poll demonstrates that they like Social Security and Medicare, they support iconic liberal programs in areas like environmentalism and worker safety, and they're pretty tolerant on social issues—and getting more tolerant over time, not less.
Porkbusting is helpful, but we could eliminate pork entirely and it wouldn't substantially reduce the size and scope of government. Nor would cuts in military or discretionary spending. The real problem for libertarians is that the programs that make up the bulk of leviathan are, face it, popular programs.

This has created a problem, though — a highly contentious political stasis...
...the truth is that today both major political parties are largely stuck. On the left, the problem is that liberals have achieved the bulk of what they set out to achieve 75 years ago, and the country is pretty happy with it. ... There just aren't very many big-ticket items left with the potential to generate a lot of voter excitement.

In the same vein, the problem on the right is that conservatives have failed miserably whenever they've tried to take a serious chainsaw to modern liberalism. Cutting taxes is just about all they have left, and as Bartlett concedes, taxes can't be cut forever. This has mostly reduced conservatives to nibbling modestly around the edges of the contemporary liberal edifice while simultaneously passing out enough goodies to keep their supporters happy and the rubes, if not happy, at least scared enough to keep voting for them.
So, we're at an impasse. The big economic stuff has been done, and all that's left is to pick at the scabs while we watch the wealth redistribution grow — from about 2% of GDP in the 1950s to about 12% today....and more soon. For all their talk about "reducing the size of government", libertarians (and fiscal conservatives) have yet to get around that fundamental obstacle. Voters like government programs that promise to make life better.

Except, while I acknowledge the electoral sentiment, I think it's a bit more complicated than Drum lets on. Voters like government programs that promise to make life better in much the same way that drivers like nicer cars. People like Good Things, and — all else equal — they want more Good Things rather than less.

Now, try polling the same voters who like government programs and ask them if they also like nice cars. I'll go out on a limb and guess that the percentage who like nice cars is actually much higher than the percentage who like social security and medicare.

Unlike government programs, though, nice cars have a direct, visible cost to the consumer. So, despite the widespread interest in nice cars, many of us actually drive functional-but-not-flashy used cars.




 
Finally putting to paper what many on the Right have long known, Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, has come out swinging for the right field fences, arguing that President Bush is no conservative; that, in fact, he is "more like Richard Nixon—a man who used the right to pursue his agenda but was never really part of it." Meanwhile, Congress has been living up to Dick Armey's lament: "We come to this town and we do things we ought not to be doing in order to stay in the majority so we can do things we ought to be doing that we never get around to doing."

With a profligate President and spineless Republican majority in office, many on the Right — i.e., the fiscal conservatives and libertarians — are wondering what happened to their Republican Party, and whether the GOP can go back to looking for ways to reduce the size of government, rather than the best way to continue staying in the majority of it.

But before we embark on another anti-leviathan crusade a la 1994, proponents of limited government need to be reminded of a practical problem with reducing the size of government: the public generally likes the big government programs we'd like to cut.

Oh, sure, they may complain about taxes, pork and other easy targets or painful reminders of the cost of government, but they generally like — and vote for — the programs that constitute the bulk of the "size of government" about which we complain. In a recent CBS/New York Times poll, fully 62% said "the federal government should guarantee health insurance for all Americans". That poll is not an outlier. As for the other major federal liability, social security, numerous polls show the public trusts the Democratic Party substantially more than the Republican Party to deal with Social Security, which should tell you all you need to know about their interest in cutting it back.

In a Washington Monthly review of Bruce Bartlett's book, Kevin Drum makes a point that practical libertarians need to take to heart when considering the political landscape...

This is the reality that true-believer conservatives—Bartlett among them—don't want to believe. For all the trash talking from right-wing leaders like Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay, the fact is that America is only a moderately conservative country.
...
Americans may not be ready for European-style soft socialism, but poll after poll demonstrates that they like Social Security and Medicare, they support iconic liberal programs in areas like environmentalism and worker safety, and they're pretty tolerant on social issues—and getting more tolerant over time, not less.

Porkbusting is helpful and it certainly energizes the limited government types, but we could eliminate pork entirely and it wouldn't substantially reduce the size and scope of government. Nor would any likely cuts in military or discretionary spending. The problem programs for libertarians and fiscal conservatives are the entitlement programs and those are, let's face it, popular programs. On the question of the size of government, the Left has indisputably won.

This has created a problem, though — a highly contentious political stasis. As Kevin Drum wrote...

...the truth is that today both major political parties are largely stuck. On the left, the problem is that liberals have achieved the bulk of what they set out to achieve 75 years ago, and the country is pretty happy with it. ... There just aren't very many big-ticket items left with the potential to generate a lot of voter excitement.

In the same vein, the problem on the right is that conservatives have failed miserably whenever they've tried to take a serious chainsaw to modern liberalism. Cutting taxes is just about all they have left, and as Bartlett concedes, taxes can't be cut forever. This has mostly reduced conservatives to nibbling modestly around the edges of the contemporary liberal edifice while simultaneously passing out enough goodies to keep their supporters happy and the rubes, if not happy, at least scared enough to keep voting for them.

So, we're at an impasse. The big economic damage has been done, and all we can do now is to pick at the scabs while we watch the wealth redistribution grow — from about 2% of GDP in the 1950s to about 12% today....and more soon.

For all their talk about "reducing the size of government", libertarians and fiscal conservatives have yet to get around that fundamental obstacle. Voters like government programs that promise to make life better.

Except, while I acknowledge the electoral sentiment, I think it's a bit more complicated than Drum lets on. Voters like government programs that promise to make life better in much the same way that drivers like nicer cars. People like Good Things, and — all else equal — they want more Good Things rather than less.

Now, try polling the same voters who like government programs and ask them if they also like nice cars. I'll go out on a limb and guess that the percentage who like nice cars is actually much higher than the percentage who like social security and medicare.

Unlike government programs, though, nice cars have a direct, visible cost to the consumer. So, despite the widespread interest in nice cars, many of us actually drive functional-but-not-flashy used cars.
 
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