Bailout Bill Blues

From my perspective the essence of the bailout bill can be summarized as follows: We want government to “help” us, where “us” is defined as hardworking average Joe American, and of course not greedy Wall Street bankers. And hence the final death knell of fiscal conservative/libertarian thinking of the role of government. The fiscal conservative/libertarians among us don’t want government “help” because we know that government help (a) comes with many, many strings attached that deprive us of our liberty; (b) force us to serve the state, thereby depriving us of our dignity; and (c) in the end, cause more problems than they solve. The Republicans who defeated the original bill on Monday weren’t characterized as bold defenders of libertarian thought, they were instead characterized as rigid ideologues or, worse, nihilists. And they “came around” anyway; so much for their vaunted principles, right? But really this isn’t surprising. We really haven’t learned the lesson of 1995, with the government shutdown. There the choice to the public was crystal clear: do you reall want less government, or more? The public chose “more”. The winter of 1995-6 was the tipping point, the Gettysburg if you will, of the campaign to reduce government. From that point on it’s been a lost cause.

The only reason George Bush won as narrow a victory as he did in 2000 was because he was a “compassionate conservative”, not that evil Gingrich-type conservative who ruthlessly wanted government to wither on the vine. No, Bush was supposed to be this new kind of conservative, one who didn’t want to slash and burn government, but instead mould government to serve conservative principles. Hence his signature achievemnt, No Child Left Behind, didn’t reduce government at all; it grew government far more than Clinton’s wildest dreams. Medicare Part D was another example: don’t reduce government, instead create a new government program that was supposed to work according to free-market principles in dispensing drugs to Grandma.

And the bailout bill is the final blow. Limited-government conservatism is in a serious coma, and may not survive much longer. Everywhere we look, both from Democrats and Republicans, we see the insatiable desire to grow government. We don’t have a champion anymore who believes that the most helpful government is the one that gets out of people’s ways to let them pursue their own dreams unfettered from bureaucratic red tape and mindless regulation. No, instead, the business that is unregulated is regarded with suspicion and mistrust; it can’t be trusted to do the right thing, only Washington bureaucrats can do that.

But this is reality. It is good that we recognize it now, because when Obama gets elected (which I think is almost a certainty now), we will have to work hard to find our new standard-bearer of limited-government conservatism, someone who can resuscitate it from its coma and reaffirm its principles to a public that now believes government is the path to prosperity.