Friendly Fire

After the Republicans’ “thumpin’,” as President Bush described it, in the 2006 midterm elections, the recent host of books offering a scathing conservative critique of the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled 107th, 108th, and 109th Congresses look prescient.

It’s getting hard to keep the titles straight: In 2003 and 2004, left-wing critics offered Worse than Watergate, American Dynasty, The Price of Loyalty, Losing America, and The Politics of Truth. Beginning with Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, by former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett, conservatives and libertarians are catching up, venting their pent-up frustration with the Bush White House and the Republican leadership in Congress in book form.

Pundit Andrew Sullivan attempts to diagnose the spiritual source of big government in The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. In The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, New York Post editorial writer Ryan Sager makes the case that the Southern/evangelical node in the Republican party must yield to its Western/libertarian ethos if it is to compete nationally in the future.

But the best of these volumes is Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution. Authored by Michael D. Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, it is a compelling critique of the growth of government under Republican leadership.

Government spending has risen from $1.46 trillion in 1994 to $2.7 trillion in 2005. The rate of real growth in spending under George W. Bush has been 4.9 percent—higher than all other administrations except for Lyndon B. Johnson’s spendthrift Great Society. Government spending as a percentage of GDP, which fell throughout the 1990s, is rising again. Expensive entitlements like the Medicare prescription-drug benefit have been enacted, saddling future generations with billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities. The government has intruded into education with a confusing law that fails to achieve most of its goals.

Like many of the other recent titles, Tanner’s book begins with a taxonomy of what he calls “big-government conservatism”—but his is the most thorough. No mere summary of Frank Meyer’s “fusionism”—what Sager offers in The Elephant in the Room—it describes the disparate origins and ideologies of neoconservatives, “national greatness” conservatives, the religious right, supply-siders, and technophiles. Tanner’s approach is analytical, not pejorative, and even though he pointedly disagrees with big-government conservatism, he does not resort to caricature. His nuanced explanation of neoconservatism is especially worth the attention of that movement’s critics on both right and left.

Tanner meticulously documents the growth of government in the past six years in welfare, health care, entitlements, spending, education, executive power, and paternalism. He manages to combine serious scholarship with readability. Like his disgruntled comrades, Tanner takes aim at popular targets—federal marriage initiatives, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, failure to reform Social Security, earmarks, the 2002 farm bill, No Child Left Behind, and the handling of the Terri Schiavo case. Tanner’s most original contribution to the bill of particulars is his chapter entitled “National Health Care Lite,” which highlights the oft-neglected contribution that healthcare inefficiencies and insurance mandates make to the growth of government spending.

Insurance mandates require citizens who can afford health insurance to buy it. The most widely discussed example comes from Massachusetts, where it was the brainchild of then-governor Mitt Romney. That plan has garnered the guarded support of scholars at the Heritage Foundation (“While the Massachusetts plan is clearly not perfect, it does make some cru­cial conceptual breakthroughs in health policy.”) and the American Enterprise Institute (“The essential features of the Massachusetts plan are praiseworthy. . . . [But] the vision of a transparent and dispassionate market, offering a wide variety of insurance coverage options chosen by people on the basis of preference, remains only a vision.”). Support for such initiatives generally indicates resignation about ever rolling back government involvement in health care, and suggests that the inefficiencies of such involvement be mitigated by introducing market forces. But Tanner opposes such measures: “compulsory, government-defined insurance opens to door to even more widespread regulation of the health care industry and political interference in personal health care decisions. The result will be a slow but steady spiral downward toward a government-run, national health care system.”

It is a typical moment for Tanner. He is a Goldwater conservative who fears that our boundary-hopping national government is on its way to becoming tyrannical. Leviathan on the Right is not a comforting book.

Interestingly, Tanner neglects one compelling explanation for the Right’s big-government tendency. In a preface, Tanner says that his book “is not a discussion of the Bush administration’s foreign policy.” Domestic issues, he says, are the locus of “a perhaps more important, if less frequently discussed, battle . . . for the soul of the conservative movement.” Even in his chapter on presidential power, Tanner keeps the focus largely on domestic issues: federalism, signing statements, and relations with Congress. The Iraq war, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, domestic surveillance, and international democracy promotion—among other frequent libertarian bugbears—go unmentioned in Leviathan on the Right. But a critique of big-government conservatism at home only tells half the story. It is impossible to separate foreign and domestic policy in this discussion. America’s current foreign policy—in particular the fact that we are at war, but don’t feel like we are—has substantial implications for domestic growth of government.

The federal government has always grown immensely during wartime. In his 1994 book War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundation of Modern Politics, Bruce Porter points out that the federal government first began to penetrate the national economy during the Civil War with purchasing, production, and the imposition of an income tax. The war “stimulated public awareness of the positive utility of political power”—and here Porter prefigures Tanner’s comment that “big-government conservatives see a positive society-shaping role for government.”

Although the federal government grew substantially during each successive war, spawning new economic interventions, taxes, and federal agencies, and even though many of these interventions had lingering big-government effects, demobilization usually followed. U.S. involvement in World War II changed all that: The economy became virtually socialist, subject to a number of wage, rent, and price controls, and rationing. The war stimulated an unprecedented mobilization effort with nearly twelve million conscripted fighting men.

In popular memory, the government’s nonmilitary role underwent its large expansion earlier, during the New Deal. The federal civilian workforce did grow during this period, from less than 400,000 on the eve of the Great Depression to about 900,000 at its peak. But ten years later, at the zenith of the war effort, over 3.7 million civilians held federal employment. Photos of the National Mall in Washington during the war (right) reveal that it was crisscrossed by hastily constructed temporary office buildings to house the wartime proliferation of bureaucrats and agencies.

In 1945, unlike after previous wars, the United States did not fully demobilize. Facing a cold war with an equally matched superpower, it maintained a large standing army and something of a war footing. Federal civilian employment fell from its 1945 highs but still remained at nearly triple the pre-Depression level. As Porter writes, “The coming of the Cold War thus gave a permanent cast to the transmutations of World War II.” Without World War II and the impossibility of subsequent demobilization, today’s massive government would have been unthinkable.

Although Porter wrote War and the Rise of the State well before the September 11 attacks, his thesis applies to our situation today. After the slow churn of the Cold War, we are now in a conflict of prominent flashes across the globe. One can criticize the War on Terror or the Iraq war, but to ignore them—even deliberately—in a discussion of our burgeoning federal government misses a key explanation. Even Reagan, lionized by Tanner and his fellow Bush critics, failed to reduce government spending. According to Porter, this is because “no state in history has ever managed to shrink bureaucratically and expand militarily at the same time.”

Our armed forces are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and are stationed elsewhere. They are in a real war—certainly not of the scale of past wars, but a war nonetheless. But we the American people do not feel like we are at war. We enjoy unmatched prosperity and expansive liberty (airport security notwithstanding). There is no shortage of cars, houses, food, clothing, and consumer goods. Rationing is unthinkable and we do not have to contribute scrap metal to the cause. We buy no defense bonds to fund the war effort—China does that for us. Even a draft is broadly opposed. The average American in no way feels the cost and burden of war. We are at war but live like we’re at peace. This is the cause of the cognitive dissonance of government growth—the reason that we can wonder, against all historical evidence, why our government continues to grow. The government is on a war footing; the American people are not.

Tanner offers a small-government program in Leviathan on the Right. His prescriptions—a return to federalism, spending cuts, entitlement reform, and pay-as-you-go—are sound policies. Federalism—letting the states find their own way on fiscal, legal, and thorny cultural issues in a pluralist era—might especially reduce some of the high stakes and vitriol of national politics. But war necessarily increases the power of the state. In War by Other Means: An Insider’s Account of the War on Terror, former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo defends the Bush administration’s war record, making a reasonable case for the legality and utility of the Patriot Act, wiretapping and surveillance, interrogation of terrorists, military tribunals, and incarceration at Guantanamo Bay. These actions constitute a minimal level of wartime intervention by the standards of previous wars, but they represent a more powerful government all the same.

This explanation for the growth of government does not excuse the bipartisan laxity on spending, especially the growth of earmarks for pork-barrel projects that have nothing to do with defense. But it does make sense of observers’ criticisms. The American people must decide if the war is worth sacrifice—if we will continue fighting in Iraq and against terrorism worldwide, or if we will withdraw and cut our losses. Only if we decide to withdraw, or only if we win, will we be in a position to begin cutting the growth of government. Until then, well-argued and worthwhile broadsides like Leviathan on the Right will bounce off the resistant hull of a government at war.

This review of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution, by Michael D. Tanner, was originally published on on March 13, 2007.