-By Warner Todd Huston
Leftists love to purposefully misconstrue what sort of government conservatives want. Certainly whenever some new big government boondoggle erupts in the typical corruption and waste that is government, conservatives rail against the misappropriation of powers that such boondoggles invariably mean. But when government isn’t doing something they want it to do and conservatives kvetch with equal vitriol, the first attack left-wingers charge them with is hypocrisy. The left’s taunt, however, is a willful misread of what it is that conservatives are saying in their critique of government.
Unfortunately, many conservatives make this taunt all the easier to level because it seems that they are a bit hazy themselves on just what they should think about the role of government.
Conservatives come by this problem honestly, though. What conservative worth his salt is unaware of Ronald Reagan’s famous small government quote: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” (Reagan’s first inaugural address)
The problem is, too many mistake Reagan’s sentiment and imagine he is leaning toward no government. The truth is, Reagan was not saying we don’t need government, he was saying we need government closer to home, more local, and out of the hands of “elites.” Reagan’s full quote adds much needed context.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden.
Notice the qualifiers? “In this present crisis,” does not mean we need no government but that the larger government of those troubled Carter-esque days in which he took office was a failed concept. And notice that he said “self-rule,” a phrase that traditionally does not mean no government but the right amount of government, a government of the people, a government close to home operated by local officials and controlled by the voters. Reagan was specifically denigrating the rule of elites in Washington D.C., not government in and of itself.
But Reagan’s quote is not the only one that conservatives love to bring out when the subject of government overreach comes up. There is also the ersatz Jefferson quote, “That government is best which governs least.” This quote was made famous in 1847 by that old civil dissident Henry David Thoreau and has been a favorite of small government types ever since. (The phrase actually came from the masthead of a magazine from the 1840s, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review.)
But, once again, it is too easy to look at this phrase too simplistically. After all, “least” doesn’t mean “none” and all too many miss that distinction.
In any case, this penchant to distrust government is inbred into the American system. It’s the sole reason we have a bi-cameral system, not to mention that we have loaded ourselves down with city, county, state and federal governments. The idea was to spread power out far and wide so that no one entity could become all powerful, callous, and destructive of our freedoms. In truth, what conservatives fear is an oppressive government, but despite the oft times virulent rhetoric they don’t truly imagine that there should be no government at all.
Or, as Founding Father James Madison said, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” This sentiment lies at the heart of small government philosophy.
The whole problem with conservative’s concept of the proper role of government — and it is the chief reason why liberals mock it — is that the belief system takes education to understand it. Naturally, left-wingers don’t mock the conservative fear of overpowering government merely because it takes education to understand, they mock it because they don’t themselves have that education and therefore don’t understand. The point is, though, that it takes a grounding in American political theory to understand why small government philosophy is not only the American way, but the right way for all mankind.
Of course another reason leftists don’t “get” conservative’s idea of what government is for is because leftists have a diametrically opposed idea of what government should do. They feel that government should have no limits at all — well, let me restate that to say they feel this until government encroaches upon their own druthers, then they get angry at what government is doing. Still, they haven’t the intelligence to grasp why they are angry. They are just angry.
In the end, conservatives want government to stay out of their lives until it is necessary. Conservatives don’t want government to spend $1.2 billion on encouraging people to ride bicycles (As Obama’s government just did). Conservatives don’t want government to tell them what sort of healthcare insurance they must buy. Conservatives don’t even want some nosey government slug to tell him how to build the shed in his back yard.
Conservatives do want government to protect them from foreign invaders. They do want government to insure that trade between the states is lawful and fair, they do think that government should support police, fire protection, and emergency services. Conservatives even understand that taxes are a necessary evil, just as the founders did.
But conservatives believe that all government should be in keeping with the original notions of limited government as intended by the founders. By contrast, leftists see no end to the growth of government and that is an entirely un-American concept.
I’ll leave you with one more quote one to which we should look to undergird our concepts of what government should do. It is again from founder Madison, fourth president and acclaimed as the father of the Constitution.
Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government.
Our government was built upon the bedrock of philosophies that spawned the American Revolution and its capstone was the U.S. Constitution. But we cannot simply take its words at what we think is face value as that is a transient way to govern ourselves. It leaves our law to the capricious feelings of succeeding generations. As Madison so presciently warned us, if we separate the mere text from the historical background we have a hollow law.
Leftists love hollow law because they can make it say whatever they want it to say and at any time. There is no meaning to it but what they say it is today. It’ll change tomorrow, too. But conservatives feel that there is value in the ideals upon which this country was founded. And the fact that leftists have no values but those that are situational is the final reason why left and right can never agree in America today.
The only solution is to educate leftism out of our populace by actually teaching American exceptionalism. Sadly, teaching America’s founding principles is something the left despises and will fight off at all costs.
Conservatives have a battle on their hands and education is the battle plan that will win the day