I remember sometime around 1994 (before the GOP congressional successes) a conservative Republican political science professor at Northern Illinois University (NIU) was speaking casually with a grad student who was hopeful for Republican prospects. The professor suggested that, while they both might abhor the Clinton Administration, when it came to Republicans actually achieving power in Washington, conservatives might come to regret their wishes. That lesson, in a hallway before or after class, has stuck with me. It was an instructive view of a conservative perspective on government. It said that if you believe, fundamentally, that government is an evil (not the worst evil, but an evil nonetheless), then taking over government will not make it good – and it may make you complicit.
My first post in this blog in March 2004 spoke to the same issue, the distinction between conservative views and Republican governance; although I don’t think I had the NIU conservative discussion in mind. Lately we’ve been hearing more about the problems of the Bush Administration in this context as its former unity and strength crumbles under the realities of governing.
– There’s longstanding conservative dissatisfaction with spending and increasing debt – and that started well before the 2004 election and the Bush Administration response to the Katrina disaster.
In this context Jonathan Chait’s New Republic piece on The Anti-Dogma Dogma is instructive. At its most basic the issue is this: the conservative ideal is freedom. The liberal ideal is liberty. Freedom by definition requires “being left alone” and is always in tension (if not at war) with government. Liberty by definition, “immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority,” requires some sort of governance.
Paul Krugman among others has observed , “politicians who don’t believe in a positive role for government shouldn’t be allowed to design new government programs.” While this is true, there is something even more basic to learn: parties that believe that American “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” may not have the solution. They may not know how to govern.