The Republican contest in this presidential election, as in many before, is between degrees of small-government-ism. To be sure, the party wasn’t always the party of “government is the problem.” Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, and Eisenhower oversaw extensive expansion of governmental programs to help the little guy get a leg up. Richard Nixon used federal power to desegregate schools and establish the Environmental Protection Agency. He supported the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and proposed the federalization of Medicaid, federal support for HMOs, and comprehensive health care reform that included a private health insurance employer mandate.
But since the 1980s, small government-ism has been the party’s rallying cry. For one thing, today’s Republicans—contra Nixon—oppose mandates in health insurance. Voters can choose candidates who want to make government somewhat smaller, reducing taxes and de-regulating business and banking to prod growth and jobs. Or they can vote for candidates who pledge to make government, as Rand Paul said in last week’s debate, “really really small.” Paul lambasted even Marco Rubio’s support for the child tax credit on the grounds that it’s “liberal spending.”
Oddly enough, however, for the party of conservative values, a prime principle of conservatism has slipped from view. The idea that government should govern lightly—the idea of political freedom itself–rests on the notion that people have the values and ethics to govern themselves. That is, to advance not only their own interests but the societal good. As T. Roosevelt said, his policies on labor and capital “are reducible to my favorite formula—a square deal for every man.” In 1911 he identified, “the great movement of our day, the progressive nationalist movement against special privilege.”
So light government and political freedom is not the liberty to do just anything or to enrich oneself.
The great eighteenth-century conservative Edmund Burke put it this way: “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do as they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.” What he thought we should be pleased to do is take responsibility for all in society, not just the high-born and monied. He attacked corruption in government and in the powerful East India Company and sought to improve the wretched conditions in Ireland and among British workers.
The idea that light regulation comes with societal responsibility goes back to John Locke, whose criteria for self-government grounds our Declaration of Independence, and to the economic guru of the Republican party, Adam Smith. Smith hailed open markets as a way to get commoners up the economic ladder after they’d been dispossessed of land and driven to abysmal, impoverishing factory work. But he insisted that markets flourish when they’re based on “virtue” and responsibility for the commons so that top-down control is not needed. Honesty, discipline, promise-keeping, deferred gratification, thrift, patience, and cooperation develop, he held, in families, communities, and churches, and without them markets collapse into a saturnalia of chaotic greed.
In markets as in all of society, Smith wrote, each of us should “endeavor, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer.”
So with the Republican cry for de-regulation and freedom from government, one would expect an accompanying program of ethics and responsibility. But in the race to smallest government, that’s fallen aside as though de-regulation alone were enough. Smith, who saw markets flourishing only with virtue, would be surprised.
Interestingly, Ohio governor John Kasich has some ideas about it.
One is that our financial sector runs on too much greed. During last week’s debate Kasich cited the philosopher and theologian Michael Novak, saying that Wall Street needs ethics to continue to operate. He would require increased capital reserves (as would Jeb Bush) and decreases in high-risk investment instruments. To run the country from the “bottom up,” he notes, we need “responsibility” in business and public policy, learned in family and community.
Now that’s Burke-Smith republicanism.
Kasich supports balancing the budget and lowering corporate taxes to promote growth and to encourage companies to bring profits earned overseas back to the U.S. But he also supports training those at the bottom for meaningful work. He wants secure border controls but also a legal means for law-abiding undocumented immigrants to pay a penalty, stay here, and work. To back up this policy, he cites Ronald Reagan, the most popular Republican president in recent history.
As England’s markets grew increasingly unregulated, Adam Smith’s critique sharpened: capitalism without morals, he wrote, makes workers dull, destroys communities, vitiates morality, fosters anonymous cities, and allows the flamboyant rich to corrupt all.
Sounds like worthwhile reading for anyone promoting self-government and freedom.