In response to recent defeats and in the interest of moving beyond past successes, Jay Cost argues for reforming conservatism. His central point: “The animating impulse is not so much to increase or decrease the scope of the federal government, but to modify the way the government accomplishes its goals.”
He is correct in that “smaller government” is a relative term that does not speak to what the correct size of government is. His reference to “the way the government accomplishes its goals” implies that the goals of government are already understood. I am not convinced this is the case.
The role of government is to punish evil and praise good. Government should be large enough to punish as much evil as there is in the land. If there is not much evil, government does not need to be very big. Conversely, government should effectively praise good as well. “Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before unknown men” (Proverbs 22:29).
Sometimes government can get its roles mixed up and praise evil or punish good. More subtle is when this begins as a government attempting to do good. Cost quotes our beloved 40th President Reagan, “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” I would agree with the first part of that and narrow the second part to say “government outside its correct role is the problem.” A lack of vigilance to when government deviates from its rightful purposes gives rise to corruption.
This is why, in addition to “sound policy on education, entitlements, regulation, and energy,” Cost argues, “Reform conservatism should also concern itself with political corruption, the systematic tendency of the government to favor narrow factions of society over the public good.” (To clarify, I consider “sound policy” with respect to those things to still only be punishing evil and praising good.)
Cost is correct in that one form of corruption is when government favors “narrow factions of society.” Dick Morris recently noted the contrast in winning elections by identity politics and appealing to narrow factions vs. winning by messaging on principles that apply universally to everyone.
Is corruption really “the systematic tendency of the government”?
I would argue that corruption, called sin, is inherent to human nature (hence our need for the Gospel), and that our government is set up to systematically counterbalance this corruption. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts sinful man absolutely. This is why we have separation of powers. Parallel to Isaiah 33:22 we have three branches of government. No one branch of government has absolute power. This was the original ambition “made to counteract ambition,” as Cost quotes Madison. Some may corruptly exploit the limits of the system, but nonetheless, the principles on which that system is based remain true and useful for good government.
If a nation rejects God and the Source of its blessings, including a system of government that follows God's Word and compensates for human nature, then it is no surprise to see vigilance decrease and corruption within that government increase.
We may be seeing this now with the Affordable Care Act. In the name of lowering costs, the law tilts the balance of power heavily toward the administration and toward denying basic laws of supply and demand. This is not a systematic tendency of government, but a systematic tendency of this law enacted in defiance of our system of government and of basic laws of economics.
A focus on corruption is only as useful as there is a tendency for corruption to exist and multiply in the first place. If conservatives become the anti-corruption people (feeding further still the ruse that they always oppose things), then laws like ACA give that cause reason to exist.
Cost gives three reasons for his reform conservatism agenda: (1) pro-middle class, (2) anti-corrupt wealthy, and (3) process reform.
The first sounds too close to more identity politics. The second sounds like it is possibly an argument based on principle though it could easily get lost or buried without a solid foundation for the purpose of government. For the third he cites “corrupt practices” in the policy process itself that makes the system not “capable” of enacting a conservative reform agenda. And yet having three branches of government is one of the very good parts about our policy process.
Refocusing our efforts on conforming government to only its correct purposes would mitigate the need to eliminate this kind of corruption. Saying that “the federal government has a legitimate and potentially beneficial role to play in economic development, health care, education, and so on” would be an example of ceding the terms of debate to those in favor of activist government that deviates from its correct purposes.
Why should we have “revised the institutions that channel government’s ever-expanding powers,” instead of reining in that excessive power? It is indeed “imprudent to give greatly expanded power to institutions intended to do much less.” The problem is the amount of power, not the institutions. We need to repeal ACA, not revise it or replace it.
Cost concludes: “By increasing the power of government without revising our institutions, we have undermined government’s capacity to break and control the violence of faction.” Implicit in that statement is a full-throated acceptance of the “increasing power of the government.” That is exactly why some people see no difference between the two major parties. (Also, the idea that “government … undermines government” is a tacit admission that the very existence of government outside its proper role is a source of its own problems.)
Madison's “violence of faction” is another way of referring to everyone competing for their share of federal spending. The problem is not “an unbalancing of the Madisonian scales” so much as it is too much spending by the federal government for purposes of identity politics. The answer is not in “rebalancing the system” as it is in reducing how much there is to balance. This is something that Taxed Enough Already groups gets right.
We can focus on corruption, or we can focus on that which allowed for the corruption in the first place, and vigilantly work toward getting government back to its rightful purposes and only those purposes.