Legacy lost

In a letter on April 5, 1887, John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton unearthed this gem on the human psyche: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton’s Law comes to mind on reading “Leviathan on the Right,” Michael D. Tanner’s sharp book on just how the GOP kept shooting itself in the foot — including war in Iraq — to earn defeat in both houses of Congress last November. Defeat, after holding Congress for 12 years after its successful Contract with America in 1994, and for 10 years since Bill Clinton proclaimed in his 1996 State of the Union message that “the era of big government is over.” Over? You’re kidding.

So the author, director of health and welfare studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, sets the record straight on how the GOP managed to disown its less-government legacy from the likes of Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek (of “The Road to Serfdom,” “The Constitution of Liberty” and “The Fatal Conceit” fame), and from Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater.

Said Mr. Reagan in his first inaugural address: “Conservatism seeks to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment.” Mr. Tanner also quotes from the Goldwater classic of 1960, “Conscience of a Conservative”: “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I intend to reduce its size.”

Curb or reduce? Today, neither. Mr. Tanner ticks off some of the many leftward-drifting centrist assaults on reduction as President Bush, No. 43, oversees the largest expansion of government since LBJ launched his Great Society, all carefully cited, all oblivious of Acton’s Law. Under Mr. Bush, the federal government:

• Significantly increased federal control over local schools with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, while upping federal education spending by more than 60 percent.

• Enacted a campaign finance bill that sharply curbs freedom of speech, with even Mr. Bush himself saying the bill may not be constitutional.

• Authorized warrantless wiretapping and handed over vast new powers to law enforcement agencies.

• Enacted a $1.5 billion program to promote marriage.

• Withdrew support for free trade, traditionally a conservative cause, by imposing tariffs and other import constraints on steel and lumber for a time.

• Boosted agricultural subsidies, hurting farmers in Africa where U.S. crop surpluses have been dumped.

• Added some 7,000 pages of new federal regulations, skyrocketing the annual cost of such regulations to the economy to $1.1 trillion.

• Approved porky budget “earmarks” — usually a bit surreptitiously — for specific projects in members’ districts. These earmarks increased from 4,000 in 1994 to more than 14,000 in 2005.

But such Acton Law-clueless moves are in the end defeatist, rebuts Mr. Tanner. He cites public opinion polls consistently showing that a majority of Americans prefer smaller government with fewer services to larger government with more services. So it follows, as night does day, that Americans want lower, not higher, taxes — a surefire goal luring voters and campaign donations. Write it down, Republicans.

Mr. Tanner asks, What now, you leaders of the increasingly out-of-power GOP?He suggests: Why not switch away from centrism and get back to less — and thus more supply-side and politically savvy — government?

He baldly tells Republicans that big government simply doesn’t work: It has not eliminated poverty or even much reduced it, made our health care or retirement systems better, improved education or solved any of the myriad problems society faces, including crime. More often than not it has made these problems worse, and surely costlier via higher taxes and lower economic growth.

So the Tanner gist to Republicans — national, state, local, all bracing for the big 2008 presidential election contest and sure Democrat onslaught — is soul-searching: Study this book, think hard and get back to your roots and drawing board, fast. You can’t out-center the centrists. The future is yours to lose. Or, conceivably, win.

William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Ala.

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