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Elections, Demagogues and Limited Government
by George Shadroui
10 February 2004Huey Long

Unlike his political opponents, President Bush at least recognizes the virtue of limited government in theory.

Now that we have all listened carefully to Democratic frontrunners for some weeks now, one question has to be asked: do they have any agenda beyond stimulating our appetite for government activism?

This fundamental question is almost lost in the primary clamor. The media spends more time analyzing Howard Dean’s growl than it does the assumptions that underlie his worldview. John Kerry’s sudden embrace of populism has not fundamentally altered his philosophy of government. John Edwards, who gets more bang for less substance than any candidate around, can sound at times like a reincarnation of Huey Long, without the edge, of course. The President has not helped clarify the issue because of his own big government spending, though he is attacked from the left, simultaneously, for not spending enough and for spending too much.

Perhaps it might be useful to revisit a few basics that ought to inform our electoral discussion. Michael Oakeshott, one of conservatism’s luminaries, lamented some decades ago the loss of liberty as an animating concern in Western political discourse. He reminded us that liberty is the absence of overwhelming concentrations of power. He did not limit this test to government only, but included as well big labor and big business.

Underlying his concern was that quaint notion, once put forward by the likes of Henry Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson, that a government enlarged is a threat to our individual rights and freedoms. Jefferson, in his first Inaugural address, had this to say about expansive government: “Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government….”

Yet, concentration of power continued, not only in government, but in the manufacturing sector of our economy, which began to introduce us to the temptations of empire. Our agricultural communities, over time, began to dissipate. Somewhere along the way, probably around the time that Franklin Roosevelt unveiled the New Deal, Americans began to consciously barter their liberty for security. Government grew alongside our tax burden and politicians found themselves confronting an electorate that wanted taxes reduced, but government services enhanced. This, in turn, led to a culture of consumption and the search for foreign markets, for only through economic growth could we have our cake and eat it, too: a government that could give us more without raising taxes (at least not as noticeably).

The growth of multi-national corporate power along side the growth of government, which now accounts for about 30 percent of our Gross Domestic Product, does not bode well for our Republic or our status as a self-governing, independent and freedom-loving people.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel Laureate of Economics, warned us that political freedom depends on economic freedom. A regulatory regime that crushes ingenuity and a tax system that takes an increasingly large bite out of our income would surely have struck Jefferson as tyrannical. But perhaps he would have been forced to yield to the body politick sooner or later, just as our presidents and presidential candidates talk government frugality even as they stake out new territory for government expansion. This is called smart politics in today’s political environment.

The debate over the role of government remains the fundamental question we face each election year. No one can deny that there are certain realities that have foisted upon us a more activist government – from our role as an international power to environmental concerns that would have been inconceivable 200 years ago.

One also has to confess that today the surrender to the welfare state seems complete. The idea that people must fend for themselves, though it works in virtually every private endeavor we undertake, cannot be spoken as a part of our political discourse. You simply cannot say, if you are a Democratic politician, that it is not the job of government to ensure cradle to grave care and support for our citizens. 

Government is necessary, but it should not be the focal point of our lives and dreams. Yet, to listen to the list of promises pronounced by the Democratic candidates one would struggle to find an arena of personal activity that did not involve government oversight or control: universal health care, guaranteed education for all, housing, food, jobs, and, heck, why not throw in a cameo role for all Americans on Survivor?

John Edwards actually conjured up a theoretical child, with no coat, to show how there are two Americas, one for those who have, and another for the have-nots.  But Edwards offers no solutions rooted in common sense. He simply appeals to our emotions (look up the definition of demagogue). The girl needs a coat. I need the White House so I can give it to her. The logic is mystifying, particularly because in every community in this country there are thousands of good people and dozens of institutions fully capable of providing that coat and much more for those suffering hard times. We hardly need instruction on morality from Washington D.C., arguably one of the most corrupt places in our nation.

On the issue of corporate greed, the Democrats might score some points and they do raise some legitimate questions. Bear in mind, however, that millions of Americans are employed by corporations and that corporations make a substantial contribution to our government revenues and our society. Damning them without offering constructive reforms might pass muster in a Democratic primary, but rhetoric alone is not likely to suffice come November.

It would be reassuring, nevertheless, if the notion of restraint and individual initiative were introduced from time to time in the rhetoric of the Democrats. Because it isn’t, those of us who still cling to the dream of limited government have no place to turn but toward the incumbent.

His talk of limited government might be only rhetoric at this point, but as they say: hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. One must recognize that limited government is a noteworthy goal before it can be placed on the table as an alternative to business as usual. Bush at least recognizes the virtue of limited government in theory and to his credit, he has shown ingenuity in trying to deal with tough issues in a creative way – including privatization reforms that deserve better than the knee-jerk rejection they often get from Democrats.

Moreover, much of Bush’s budget, though not all, can be attributed to national defense concerns that are explicitly defined in the Constitution as a federal duty. We have often run up deficits during war-time, and given the recent recession the war on terror has not proven an exception.

Come November, we must decide ultimately what kind of people and nation we will be. We can be free or we can demand that our government act as our caretaker from cradle to grave; it is difficult to imagine that we can be both.

George Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com

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