Defending the Backlash

June 16, 2002

By John K. Bates

What started as a backlash against the supposed “conservatism” of Big Government Republicans is starting to turn into a healthy debate. As frequent readers of this column know, there is a school of thought that is utterly disgusted by so-called conservatives in Washington and elsewhere who believe that Big Government, if run by conservatives, is somehow better than Big Government run by liberals. This line of thinking has resulted in first a Republican Congress and now a Republican administration that sees no program worth cutting and no area the federal government should not intrude into.

A bellwether of the backlash against this movement appeared not long ago in a column by Francis Fukuyama in The Wall Street Journal. In “The Fall of the Libertarians,” Mr. Fukuyama said what many small-government conservatives feel: With government advancing more under President Bush than it ever did even under President Clinton, there is no hope for those of us who desire smaller government and lower taxes. George F. Will confirmed this in another recent column, where he stated that with both parties proposing huge expansions in Medicare, Social Security, and other traditionally liberal programs, “minimal government conservatism” is for all intents and purposes dead.

Mr. Will, however, was also one of the first to attack the backlash, saying in effect that although conservatives are not advancing, they are not retreating as badly as the once did and therefore they should be “quite pleased.” His voice was joined last week by Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank based in Chicago. In a syndicated column (“Here’s a Secret: Liberty is Winning,”) Mr. Bast tells conservatives to cheer up. On issues ranging from public morals to the size of government, from the economy to regulation to national defense, the core ideal of conservatism has already won the war. “Huge challenges still await us,” Mr. Bast opines, “but they should not prevent us from seeing the progress we’ve already made. ‘The era of big government’ is really over.”

Not quite. Even Mr. Bast admits that, especially on education and regulation, we have a long ways to go before we can declare that government is no longer an oppressive, damaging force on American society. But I particularly wish to take exception to Mr. Bast’s reasoning that because government spending as a percentage of GDP is shrinking, government is fact shrinking. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Bast claims, “Government spending (at all levels) as a percent of national income is down from 41 percent in 1992 … to 34.7 percent in 2000. If not for the attacks of September 11, that figure would have fallen to 32.3 percent in 2006.” He continues, “Government’s take in 2001 was about the same as in 1970.” While admitting, “Government is not getting smaller,” Bast claims our salvation to be the fact that the economy is simply outpacing the growth of government. “Real government spending grew 3.1 percent in the 1980s and 1.3 percent in the 1990s, while (GDP) grew at a rate of 3.2 percent for both decades.

There are two serious flaws in Mr. Bast’s analysis. The first is an acceptance that September 11 is an excuse to grow government. That is a farce, as has been stated here repeatedly, but when free-market types such as Mr. Bast embrace such growth of government power in the name of “security,” there is little hope of stopping it.

The second flaw is much more serious. Mr. Bast displays an almost Clintonesque ability to spin the truth. After all, Clinton was a master of doing one thing, while claiming that in fact the opposite was occurring. So it is with the contention that, because it is shrinking as a percentage of GDP, government is actually getting smaller and less intrusive.

A simple look at the federal budget will bear this out. Government spending has increased from approximately $500 billion per year in 1980 to $2.2 trillion per year in 2002. It has increased dramatically since the so-called “Republican revolution” in 1994 and even more (as a percentage) since supposed conservative George W. Bush took office. The states do no better: State spending ballooned in the late 1990s; as the economy inflated state coffers, most states chose to spend that money rather than return it to the taxpayers. Just because the government increased slower than the rate of growth does not mean that it did not increase or become more intrusive.

Moreover, consider the year Mr. Bast uses as reference: 1970. Now I was a rather young pup at the time, but I do recall that the federal government was no 1920s-vintage weakling at that point. A better year to compare the current size of government might be, say 1930. But of course, doing so would poke a rather large hole in the concept that government is shrinking. Indeed, a comparison to the days before FDR, LBJ and the rest of them would be no comparison at all. Even in the early 1950s, the average American paid just 2% in federal taxes. That number is over 20% and growing; fueled by “fairness” and bracket creep that supposed conservatives like Mr. Bast now accept as fact and even as good.

Indeed, the ultimate test for Mr. Bast’s viewpoint – and for George F. Will’s and Rush Limbaugh’s and everyone else who really believes we live in a conservative era of smaller government – is a take on the question asked by Ronald Reagan in 1984: Is the government smaller today than it was (two years, eight years) ago? In our day-to-day lives, is government stepping out of the way to let us live, or is it presuming to take every risk from us because we cannot take care of ourselves? On pay day, is government taking less, or more, or the same? Are silly and downright stupid regulations going away, or getting worse? Are schools improving? Or are they getting worse while taking more of our dollars? Most people who think more than five seconds will conclude that government is not getting one bit smaller. Whether it should is another topic for debate, and one may legitimately make the point that the American people do not want smaller government. But we ought not to delude ourselves and claim that we have won the war. From my perspective, we ran the white flag many years ago.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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