Monday, May 01, 2006

Are There Any Conservatives Left?

We may be witnessing the demise of the Conservative movement. If so, it is not collapsing in the face of mounting evidence that its core postulates have been proven wrong, rather it appears to be embracing liberal positions uncritically. Indeed, the current crop of conservative leaders seems unable to remember just what the movement’s core postulates might be.

Judging by the actions of the allegedly conservative majority in Congress as well as the President, it would appear that the movement is in full retreat. In the not so distant past, Ronald Reagan argued that “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” The Gipper was stating a core conservative principle, that we the people are better able to resolve problems than a government geographically (and culturally!) far removed from us.

In the wake of rising gas prices, one would be hard pressed to hear even a hint of such sentiments. Instead of reminding Americans that government involvement in the economy will only make matters worse by delaying market incentives that will result in competitive alternatives to oil, the Senate majority leader (alá Bill O’Reilly) declares that “big oil” is gouging the consumer, and the President calls for an investigation into that very possibility. Other Senate Republicans propose a $100 rebate, and House Republicans snarl that something must be done (by the government). While the President is right that we are “addicted to oil,” he seems only to have (federal) government programs in mind as the solution.

It is liberals who are supposed to decry Big Business as self-interested and aloof from the common man. It is conservatives who decry Big Government as self-interested, corrupt, and aloof from the common man. In fact, while market forces hold Big Business accountable, nothing holds Big Government accountable. As Ronald Reagan told us, “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.” Interestingly, the only businesses that can assure themselves of near eternal life are those that attach themselves to government regulatory commissions and oversight boards. It is the only way they can escape accountability (in the same way that bureaucrats do). Republicans would do well to remember this. Markets work, government doesn’t.

Even when there are no market solutions to a problem, Big Government is not the answer. Conservatives contend that it is always best to leave the effort to local authorities where initiative on the part of citizens is still possible. There is nothing about the federal government from its personnel system to its management system that permits initiative. Those best able to deal with issues in an efficient and rational manner are those most directly affected by them. Big Government only gets in the way when it tries to direct or manage affairs. If it can do anything at all, it can merely provide support, and even that may prove difficult for the armies of federal bureaucrats to figure out how to do.

Recent evidence of this was provided by Katrina. The federal government’s ability to move massive amounts of paperwork was only matched by the hapless state government of Louisiana. Relief came only to those areas with relatively competent local authorities. That did not include New Orleans. Unfortunately, instead of seeing in the disaster vindication of a core principle, Republicans cowed, calling for building a better, more efficient FEMA! When did conservatives begin to believe that a government bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. could be made into an efficiently operating machine?!

If Republicans can offer no other solution to problems than that offered by Democrats – that is, Big Government - then Democrats will likely return to power in one or both houses in Congress in the fall elections. After all, they are the ones who have consistently defended Big Government's ability to resolve a wide variety of issues (in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary). So, aren’t they in the best position to make it work?

The truth is that we expect too much of government. Washington simply can not do all that we want it to, and the Republic needs to recognize this, but it won’t if conservative Republicans do not once again make the point clearly, and sharply, that “government is not the solution, it is the problem!” If they do, they stand a chance of holding on to both houses of Congress in fall.

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