I recently finished Michael Tanner’s Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution (Cato, 2007). Tanner is the director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Essentially, Tanner argues that the Republican Party has become a party of big government. It’s not as bad as the Democrats, mind you, but it is still bad. Federal domestic expenditures increased under Republican leadership, and a lot of that was unrelated to homeland security. Moreover, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Fred Barnes, and other prominent conservatives have made explicit statements in favor of greater federal involvement in the domestic sphere. Although conservatives occasionally give lip service to limited government, Republican rhetoric and policy often point in the opposite direction. In the process, they contradict many of the founding fathers, who opposed the concentration of power into a single authority.
I learned a lot from the book, primarily because of its lucid presentation. I’ve always heard the term “neoconservative” tossed around, and (like many Americans) I mainly associated it with using war to solve international problems. But the neocons also uphold a clear domestic agenda, in which the federal government guides people to “correct” behavior (e.g., marriage, frugality, etc.), almost like a parent. And, according to former Chief of Staff Andy Card, Bush himself used that analogy! Neocons are interventionist in both federal and domestic policy, even though (to their credit) they were the ones who first drew national attention to the problems of welfare.
I never really understood why my Republican grandma disliked President Bush’s prescription drug entitlement, until I read Tanner’s description of it. According to Tanner, the beneficiary must pay the total drug costs between $2,250 and $3,600, the “doughnut hole.” Anything above or below that range, however, is covered by Medicare. Tanner doesn’t actually think that the benefit should cover the doughnut hole, however, since he perceives that entitlements are already getting out of control. Overall, he doesn’t really even view the benefit as necessary, for he points out that a lot of people were already getting prescription drug coverage before its passage.
Tanner made some points about importing cheap prescription drugs that had never entered my mind (perhaps because I should do more reading). One argument against it is that American prescription drug companies do most of the research that creates groundbreaking drugs. If they were to compete against cheap, imported prescription drugs, however, then they wouldn’t have as much money for research. According to Tanner, most of the world piggybacks on America’s accomplishments in the area of pharmaceuticals.
Although I cheered Tanner’s critiques of federal farm subsidies and earmarks, I found myself disagreeing with him on certain matters, particularly the right to life. Because Tanner is a libertarian rather than a social conservative, he wants the federal government to stay out of life issues (i.e., abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia). So he criticizes the FDA’s opposition to certain abortion pills, along with the federal stand against assisted suicide in Oregon and the removal of Terry Schiavo from life support. But I believe that the government should protect life (preborn, born, elderly, sick), not just liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But I can also understand Tanner’s problem with federal intervention in state affairs. Whenever I read about Bush trying to overturn California’s tough auto emission standards, or the revolts of various states against No Child Left Behind or the Patriot Act, my thought is, “Whom should I be supporting here?” As a conservative, do I support the states defending their rights against gross federal intervention, or do I stand by my Republican President? The very definition of “conservative” is not cut-and-dry anymore.
What is really interesting is that Tanner actually sees his own philosophy as politically feasible. And he gave me food for thought on that topic. He cites polls in which most Americans respond that they want the government to spend less, even if that means fewer services, and he also mentions referenda in which the majority of voters rejected spending proposals. I see a little of what he is describing in Cincinnati. In about every election, Cincinnati votes on tax levies for various services, such as prisons, mental health facilities, and public education. And, surprisingly, many of these levies either barely pass or fail altogether. I remember watching the news on the night of the 2004 election, and voters in a Ohio city looked as if they were about to reject a new tax levy for schools (though not all of the votes were counted when I watched the story). The news anchors were beside themselves about what would happen to the schools. People would have to buy their own school supplies! There would be no more band or football team! Apparently, more and more voters are starting to believe that the government should tighten its own belt before it starts talking about more taxes.
And so Tanner’s book is a worthwhile read. It discusses why government is not the answer to many domestic problems. It also attempts to show how Republicans lost their way, and how they can regain it.