Limited Government: Are the Good Times Really Over?

By Charles R. Kesler
Editor, Claremont Review of Books

The following is adapted from a lecture delivered at Hillsdale College on January 30, 2008, during a five-day conference, “Free Markets and Politics Today,” co-sponsored by the Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig von Mises Lecture Series.

Of all of the presidential contenders’ slogans this year, Barack Obama’s have been the most interesting. His campaign creed is: “Yes, we can.” To which any reasonable person would ask: “Can what?” The answer, of course, is: “Hope.” But again, a reasonable person might ask: “Hope for what?” To which the answer confidently comes back from the Obama campaign: “For change.” Indeed Obama’s signs say: “Change We Can Believe In,” as opposed, one supposes, to the unbelievable changes. But the elementary problem with this—which any student of logic might raise—is that change can be for the better or for the worse.

Democrats in general, I would submit, confuse change with improvement. They fail to weigh the costs and benefits of change, to consider its unintended consequences, or to worry about what we need to conserve and how we might go about doing that faithfully. They ask Americans to embrace change for its own sake, in the faith that history is governed by a law of progress, which guarantees that change is almost always an improvement. The ability to bring about historical change, then, becomes the highest mark of the liberal leader. Thus Hillary Clinton quickly joined Obama on the change bandwagon. Her initial claim of “experience” sounded in retrospect a bit too boring—indeed, almost Republican in its plainness. So “Ready on Day One” signs morphed into “Ready for Change.”

Republican slogans have not been much better. Mitt Romney’s was: “Washington is Broken.” This populist refrain echoed, among others, Ross Perot’s from 1992. Romney, of course, was less a populist than an expert offering his skill as a businessman consultant. He appealed to the old Republican fantasy that if only Washington could be run as efficiently as a private business, all would be well. But government is a very different thing from business: Elected officials can’t hire or fire government employees at will, are responsible to an electorate at regular intervals, and, above all, must try to persuade people about goals that - unlike, say, pursuing higher profits — are amorphous and disputable.

As for John McCain, he doesn’t really have a slogan, unless we count “Mac is Back.” McCain differentiated himself from Romney by saying that he is a leader rather than a manager. A leader, McCain argued, appeals to patriotism rather than self-interest. Certainly McCain’s leading characteristic is his personal honor, which — unlike many republican men of honor — he talks about a lot and in public. He fits the traditional category of a war hero - turned politician, but with one important difference. Usually war heroes are victorious generals, whereas McCain is famous as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a war that ended in defeat. This fact helps to explain the somewhat prickly and self-referential quality to his sense of honor. He despises self-interest and likes to say so frequently in public, whether it’s the self-interest involved in campaign contributions (which he wants to regulate), attitudes towards illegal immigration (he imputes to its critics the most selfish motives), or even something like waterboarding (a kind of selfish act, motivated by an urgent sense of national interest). McCain stands against all considerations of low self-interest—or maybe any self-interest—in favor of doing the honorable thing, which sometimes turns out to mean simply doing the thing that John McCain wants to do.

Utterly missing in this election season is a serious focus on limited or constitutional government. The Democrats, generally speaking, want more government, not less, so their neglect of the issue is to be expected. But the Republican dereliction is more troubling. It represents a falling away from the standards of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism — a decline already reflected in the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush. After 9/11, many prominent conservatives — e.g., George Will, David Brooks, Fred Barnes — pronounced that small government conservatism is dead. That awful reminder of the dangerous world we live in, and of the need to defend ourselves, somehow meant that big government conservatism, as they called it, was now the only game in town. Conservatives would need to make their peace with this idea, they argued, in order to win future elections.

Were Will, Brooks, and Barnes wrong? For the most part, I think they were. To show how and why, I want to talk about seven propositions related to the problem of limited government in our day.

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Charles R. Kesler is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books. His articles on contemporary politics have appeared in several newspapers and journals, including the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, National Review, and the Weekly Standard. He is editor of the Signet Classic edition of The Federalist Papers, editor of and a contributor to Saving the Revolution: The Federalist Papers and the American Founding, and co-editor, with William F. Buckley, Jr., of Keeping the Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought.