The Washington Times - October 27, 2008, 06:52PM

It seems I can’t turn around these days without stumbling across the big government debate.



I just learned of a new book called “The Case for Big Government,” by Jeff Madrick, a former economics columnist for the New York Times and current editor of Challenge magazine, an economic affairs publication.


Coincidentally, Mr. Madrick’s book went on sale on Oct. 21, the same day that the final part of my three-part series on big government ran in the paper. 


I was on CSPAN’s Washington Journal Saturday to talk about the project. You can watch that interview here.


Not surprisingly, “The Case for Big Government” is endorsed on the back cover by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, Rep. Barney Frank, also a Massachusetts Democrat, and Robert Reich, who served as President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor.


The inside jacket of the book says that the author “proves that an engaged government—a big government of high taxes and wise regulations—is necessary for the social and economic answers that Americans desperately need in changing times.”


“Big governments of past eras fostered greatness and prosperity, while weak, laissez-faire governments marked periods of corruption and exploitation,” the book jacket says.


“America must reject free market orthodoxy and adopt ambitious government-centered programs,” it says.


On the other side of the argument, William Voegeli has a fascinating piece in the Claremont Review of Books called “Reforming Big Government.”


Mr. Voegeli argues that conservative have been gradually losing the effort to restrain the growth of entitlement and “human resources” spending, and so they should change the terms of the debate.


“Conservatives need to weigh the costs and benefits of putting liberals’ minds at ease by explicitly renouncing the war against the welfare state, the one that’s barely being waged and steadily being lost. They could do so by making clear that America will and should have a welfare state, and that the withering away of the welfare state is not the goal of the conservative project, not even in the distant future. What libertarians will regard as a capitulation to statism is better understood as conceding ground conservatives have been losing for 75 years and have no imaginable prospect of regaining.


“The political advantage of this concession is that it leaves conservatives positioned to argue for a better, smarter, and fairer welfare state. “Liberalism needs government,” says Cohn, “because government is how the people, acting together, provide for the safety and well-being of their most vulnerable members.” Very well, but in a society that is remarkably prosperous by global and historical standards, shouldn’t “most vulnerable members” be construed as referring to the most vulnerable 5, 10, or 25% of the population—not just the abjectly miserable, let us concede, but people confronting serious threats or problems? Yet when it turns out, time and again, that the effective meaning of liberal welfare and social insurance programs is to elicit compassion and government subventions for the most vulnerable” 75, 80, or 95% of the population, it’s hard not to feel scammed.”


Then, of course, Newsweek’s Oct. 27 cover story by editor Jon Meacham argues that America remains a conservative nation and that if Barack Obama is elected president he should not try to take the country left.


Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter has a rebuttal in the same issue arguing that there is, in fact, a resurgence among Americans of liberal ideas.


Two other pieces I’ve noticed recently are by Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review Online, which cites a number of polls on the question of government’s role, and by Peter Wehner in today’s Washington Post.


Wehner argues that a time “in the wilderness” for the Republican party might be a good thing that brings them back to their conservative roots.


“The GOP is in bad shape; conservatism is not,” Wehner argues.


Of course, Ross Douthat at The Atlantic has already been plowing this ground for weeks, and on Oct. 10 wrote that an Obama win and massive GOP losses in Congress could amount to a “once-in-a-generation defeat.”


“…While success is never final, some successes are more final than others. The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 gave birth to an administrative state that has never been rolled back, and seems unlikely be rolled back in my lifetime. So that was a pretty final victory, as political victories go. Or again, while Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 had less enduring consequences than FDR’s, at the very least it put its stamp on thirty years of American history in a way that, say, the election of Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush did not. And the convergence of an economic crisis and complete Democratic control of Washington should alarm even those conservatives eager to wash their hands of the GOP. The best reason for even the most disaffected right-winger to root for a McCain victory is simple: To the extent that much of the progressive agenda is a program in search of a crisis to justify its implementation, an election that delivers a liberal candidate who’s adored by the media to White House, gives him huge majorities in both houses of Congress, and presents him with a worldwide state of emergency in which to govern, has the potential to be not just another loss for conservatives, but a once-in-a-generation defeat.”