Thursday, March 31, 2016

Is There a Politics of Less?

I have a question. Is it possible to run for President of the United States offering less government? Or, to put the question more forcefully, can any politics succeed if it is proposing to reduce the amount of government?

Because if you look at politicians and governments, they are always in the business of doing more, or at least doing something.

And that is why, I think, the conservative agenda of less government never goes anywhere. Because really, where is the punch in a policy of, well, chaps, we really ought to wind Social Security down over the years and replace it with a genuine individual savings program. Here’s a better idea. Today’s Social Security is fundamentally unjust to gays and transgenders! We must reform Social Security to bring justice to gays and their partners!

You can see why I am thinking this. It’s all about Trump.

When I read the anti-Trump stuff, like today’s piece from the Knight of the NeverTrump Table, Kevin D. Williamson, he is perfectly right. Trump is clueless about “policy.” He reduces everything to vague calls to action. But, the conservative policy analyst inquires, what is Trump actually going to do about big, bloated government?

The point is, conservatives aren’t going to win the presidency with a carefully nuanced analysis of the issues. You win elections with promises of Change. Affordable Health Care! Make American Great Again! Justice for Seniors!

After the election is over, of course, it is back to the slow grind of policy, of this or that policy change forced through against some sort of opposition, won with the help of a few power players whose support is shamelessly bought with other peoples’ money.

If you reduce government you will kick over a hornet’s nest. That’s what I wrote about yesterday, retailing to you the story of the British Chartists in the 1840s. After the passage of the Great Reform bill in 1832 -- which you can read about in George Eliot’s Middlemarch -- Parliament passed an agenda that suited the newly franchised middle-class electorate. Free trade and Poor Law reform. But that infuriated the Poor Law recipients and the artisans that were making a decent living out of the old guild-privilege economy. And they took to the streets.

That is the problem that conservatives face. We want to do entitlement reform. But don’t tell seniors. We want education reform. But don’t tell teachers and parents. We want welfare reform. But don’t tell the tens of millions of EBT recipients. We want to repeal Obamacare. But don’t tell the 10 million or so that are presently enjoying the subsidies.

When you get into the weeds, like on the National Labor Relations Board or climate change, a conservative government can probably make changes. No doubt Big Labor and the greenies would get The New York Times and NPR in a fine froth about that. They will scream that it is the end of workers and the end of the climate as we know it. But the average American won't really care.

The dirty truth about government is that the only thing it can do is some shameful and crude thing to get out of the jam its previous policies has caused. So government totally screws mom-and-pop savers with its zero interest rate policy because it keeps the deficit down. Government passes Obamacare to paper over the royal mess caused by half a century of government meddling with health care.

And so it goes. Until the government runs out of other peoples’ money.

And then what will it do? It will take the easy way out, the one that puts the costs onto some group that isn’t well organized, or can’t really grasp what is being done to it.

That’s how I make sense of the Trump effect. None of the conservative candidates had a clear and persuasive message to go up against Trump’s promise to shake things up and make America great again. Why is that? It’s because nothing that conservatives propose has the gut-level appeal of Trump.

Or, for that matter against the Democrats’ appeal to Fight for Us and make the one percent pay for free college for everyone.

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