The cover story of last week’s Economist was “The backlash against big government.” In fact, this theme is taken up only by a brief editorial, which mostly talks up the uses of big government and the risks of cutting its size.
The lead article deals instead with the return of a monster: Leviathan, the economy-swallowing regulatory state. This rough beast has been on a feeding frenzy for some time, taking advantage of the citizenry’s reasonable fears about terror attacks and less reasonable expectations of living without economic insecurity.
Former President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was a euphemism for an expansive government. His administration tightened central control over schools and corporate governance, passed a costly – and unpaid-for – increase in medical benefits, and added 7,000 pages of federal regulations. For the political force that ostensibly represented limited government, this amounted to ideological surrender.
When a perfect storm hit the financial markets following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2009, there was nobody left to argue the costs of becoming fodder to Leviathan. Federal expenditures sky-rocketed far beyond the reach of tax revenues: the latter will no doubt increase, diminishing the economic power of the citizen while doing little to reduce the monstrous deficit.
The rout of the Jeffersonian ideal of a small, bounded federal government has been complete.
On reading the Economist story, it becomes clear that the only backlash against Leviathan is happening in the US – and here, only outside the charmed circle of our political and media elites. The Europeans, always comfortable with a bloated, schoolmasterly state, have seized on the financial crisis to do what comes natural to them.
Nicolas Sarkozy, who passes for a conservative in French politics, happily proclaimed “the return of the state, the end of the ideology of public powerlessness.” Gordon Brown, once a leader of the market-friendly New Labor, has in the words of the Economist “embarked on an Old Labor spending binge.”
In the US, the ideological demoralization begun during the Bush years has since spread further and deeper, leading to a wholesale loss of faith in the free citizen and the private sector by those public figures who once espoused their cause. Alan Greenspan apologized for having promoted free markets. Thomas Friedman, who not long ago preached a “golden straightjacket” for government, now openly admires China’s brutal and oppressive regime.
President Obama, in his inaugural, proclaimed the end of the childish dream of individualism, then embarked on a political program that meant, in essence, to transform the US into a Europe-style social democracy – a kind of Bigger Belgium. He faced an opposition which lacked all conviction, and seemed – politically, intellectually – incapable of contesting the triumph of Leviathan.
Then something happened: the “backlash” headlined, but not much dwelt on, by the Economist article. After the stimulus package passed, President Obama’s agenda has stalled utterly. Elections and polls reveal an electorate profoundly distrustful of his proposals, and of big government generally.
What changed? The received wisdom is “voter anger.” President Obama, for one, believes “People are angry and they’re frustrated.” The same angry people who elected him, he claims, now have turned against his agenda. I have touched on this angry-voter thesis before: it doesn’t agree with what I see or hear, and it makes little sense.
Activists may shout angrily for the cameras, but the ordinary American – my friends and neighbors – will rarely stir in anger, and almost never about things political. It takes an extraordinary event like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 to tick off the American people.
David Brooks, the NYT’s tame conservative, is closer to the truth when he writes, “Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.” He offers the usual policy-wonk examples: global warming, abortion, gun control. The “educated classes”are for, the public against. This is accurate so far as it goes, but of marginal significance.
Those with access to the public sphere – the political and media elites – have either cheered and promoted the progress of Leviathan, or made mumbling demoralized noises. Brooks, a mumbler who embraced the Obama candidacy, chooses to call these the “educated classes,” among which he correctly counts himself.
Fine. But who are the ignorant peasants suddenly standing in the way of the educated classes, pitchforks in hand, unashamed of their disdain for top-down decision-making and social engineering? It appears to be the people. They are not demoralized, but they do understand, with far stronger conviction than their betters, the way of life they wish to follow.
The American people remain stubbornly individualistic, self-reliant, and Jeffersonian to the core. They elected President Obama not to be lectured about their childishness but to fix the mess in Washington. They have turned against his proposals because they don’t wish to see their country, with its exceptional virtues, transformed into a run-of-the-mill example of elite power.
I sense no anger but much determination. The educated classes, on the other hand, are now divided between those, like Brooks himself, aghast at this development, and those enraged at the intolerable pretensions of the peasant mob.