Wolfe on the Problem with Conservative Government

Obviously, I read a lot of political wankery. It’s a habit that goes back to when I was in college, majoring in political science not because I wanted to go on to law school and get rich, like many of my classmates, but because I thought the assigned reading was just, well, interesting.

As with many longterm habits, I sometimes find myself wondering if I’m still indulging in it more because of personal intertia than because I’m getting anything out of it. But once in a while something comes along that reminds me of how fun it is to think about this stuff.

The latest case in point, for me at least, was this piece by Alan Wolfe in The Washington Monthly: Why conservatives can’t govern. For someone who read Hobbes and Locke and Burke for fun, this is great stuff. Highly recommended.

Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government. This mission, let us be clear, is an ideological one. It does not emerge out of an attempt to solve real-world problems, such as managing increasing deficits or finding revenue to pay for entitlements built into the structure of federal legislation. It stems, rather, from the libertarian conviction, repeated endlessly by George W. Bush, that the money government collects in order to carry out its business properly belongs to the people themselves. One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes must be cut, and the more they are cut–especially in ways benefiting the rich–the better.

But like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions–indeed, whose very existence–they believe to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.

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