Back Channels: The liberal roadblocks to shrinking government

Source: Back Channels: The liberal roadblocks to shrinking government
Kevin Ferris
July 07, 2010

William Voegeli has bad tidings for advocates of limited government and low taxes: There is no endgame when it comes to the liberal agenda.

If tomorrow, liberals in Congress, state legislatures, and town councils all across the nation raised taxes and increased spending in order to fund every single item on every special-interest wish list, would social-justice nirvana have arrived? No.

Within hours, some liberal would find an unmet need – perhaps a champagne shortage due to the previous day’s celebrations – that only a new government program could address.

It gets worse: Voegeli says that despite conservatives’ good-faith efforts to halt or reverse the growth of government, those attempts have been largely ineffective.

None of this will be news to tea partyers or like-minded folks. Maybe they haven’t expressed these concerns as eloquently and authoritatively as Voegeli does in his new book, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, but they have long understood the sentiment. In fact, the book’s explanation for how America got to this point is in sync with the concerns raised regularly at tea parties.

“Liberalism’s irrepressible drive for an ever larger welfare state without limit arises from at least two premises upon which the left no longer reflects: the elevation of compassion to a political principle (albeit with other people’s money), and the erosion of meaningful constitutional limits on government on account of the imperatives of the idea of Progress,” Steven F. Hayward says in the foreword.

Voegeli follows up: “[B]ecause compassion is an emotional response rather than a moral principle, it defeats every attempt to make wise choices about which sufferers do and don’t deserve governmentally dispensed solace.”

A benefit might begin for Americans at or below the poverty level. But then what of those just above the poverty level? How can we exclude them? If the criterion is compassion, on what grounds do you stop expanding a program? 200 percent of the poverty level? 300?

Of course, the more people covered, the larger the constituency for continuing the program.

And don’t even think of cutting the program’s budget. Even talk of slowing its growth will be met with howls of outrage. Republicans learned this lesson with Medicare in the 1990s – and turned the tables in the recent health-care debate.

Welfare-state godfather Franklin Roosevelt once suggested that failed programs could be shut down, but that has never happened, Voegeli says.

“There is not one clear instance of a welfare state program that liberals by consensus came to regard as a failure, to be frankly admitted and abandoned,” he writes.

Even under Ronald Reagan, who scaled back government somewhat, spending on what Voegeli terms “human resources” grew 0.90 percent. That’s far less than under most presidents, but still an increase.

“Reagan’s ‘triumph’ was to yield ground more slowly than any other political leader in the battle that conservatives consider their central mission,” Voegeli writes.

Reagan learned that Americans really like those programs they complain about funding. So a Crazy Eddie libertarian approach to government – “Everything must go!!” – isn’t likely to be successful at the polls.

“In exchange for a lottery player’s chance at wiping it out entirely, such conservatives forfeit any prospect of placing the welfare state on sounder footing, financially, functionally, or philosophically,” Voegeli says. Thus liberals “will have the unfettered ability to chart its future course.”

I suspect that message might trouble some tea partyers who equate compromise with surrender or see almost all government programs as unconstitutional. But note that Voegeli isn’t saying to give up the fight for liberty, self-government, or free markets. He’s just saying that not all fights rise to constitutional-crisis level, and that it’s tough to fight when sidelined – as the GOP and conservatives are today in Washington.

It’s especially important to get in the game now. Crippling deficits have the attention of Americans as never before, and many are open to a serious alternative to the nation’s unsustainable fiscal course. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has one, the Road Map for America’s Future (, a comprehensive approach to entitlement, budget, spending, and tax reform. The safety net he outlines is different from the current one, but it doesn’t bankrupt the country. The Congressional Budget Office said the plan would “make the Social Security and Medicare programs permanently solvent [and] lift the growing debt burden on future generations . . .”

The Never Enough crowd naturally doesn’t want the limits that Ryan proposes. That’s enough of an endorsement for me.

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