Even conservative columnist David Brooks, writing today at the New York Times, scolds the kind of anti-government, vote-no-on-everything fanaticism of Jeff Flake and his nutty ideological soulmates:
Every political movement has a story. The surging Republican Party has a story, too. It is a story of virtue betrayed and innocence threatened.
Through most of its history, the narrative begins, the United States was a limited government nation, with restrained central power and an independent citizenry. But over the years, forces have arisen that seek to change America’s essential nature. These forces would replace America’s traditional free enterprise system with a European-style cradle-to-grave social democracy.
These statist forces are more powerful than ever in the age of Obama. So it is the duty for those who believe in the traditional American system to stand up and defend the Constitution. There is no middle ground. Every small new government program puts us on the slippery slope toward a smothering nanny state.
As Paul Ryan and Arthur Brooks put it in The Wall Street Journal on Monday, “The road to serfdom in America does not involve a knock in the night or a jack-booted thug. It starts with smooth-talking politicians offering seemingly innocuous compromises, and an opportunistic leadership that chooses not to stand up for America’s enduring principles of freedom and entrepreneurship.”
Ryan and Brooks are two of the most important conservative thinkers today. Ryan is the leading Republican policy entrepreneur in the House. Brooks is president of the highly influential American Enterprise Institute and a much-cited author. My admiration for both is unbounded.
Yet the story Republicans are telling each other, which Ryan and Brooks have reinforced, is an oversimplified version of American history, with dangerous implications.
The fact is, the American story is not just the story of limited governments; it is the story of limited but energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility. George Washington used industrial policy, trade policy and federal research dollars to build a manufacturing economy alongside the agricultural one. The Whig Party used federal dollars to promote a development project called the American System.
Abraham Lincoln supported state-sponsored banks to encourage development, lavish infrastructure projects, increased spending on public education. Franklin Roosevelt provided basic security so people were freer to move and dare. The Republican sponsors of welfare reform increased regulations and government spending — demanding work in exchange for dollars.
Throughout American history, in other words, there have been leaders who regarded government like fire — a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control. They didn’t build their political philosophy on whether government was big or not. Government is a means, not an end. They built their philosophy on making America virtuous, dynamic and great. They supported government action when it furthered those ends and opposed it when it didn’t.
If the current Republican Party regards every new bit of government action as a step on the road to serfdom, then the party will be taking this long, mainstream American tradition and exiling it from the G.O.P.
That will be a political tragedy. There are millions of voters who, while alarmed by the Democrats’ lavish spending, still look to government to play some positive role. They fled the G.O.P. after the government shutdown of 1995, and they would do so again.
It would be a fiscal tragedy. Over the next decade there will have to be spending cuts and tax increases. If Republicans decide that even the smallest tax increases put us on the road to serfdom, then there will never be a deal, and the country will careen toward bankruptcy.
It would also be a policy tragedy. Republicans are right to oppose the current concentration of power in Washington. But once that is halted, America faces a series of problems that can’t be addressed simply by getting government out of the way.
The social fabric is fraying. Human capital is being squandered. Society is segmenting. The labor markets are ill. Wages are lagging. Inequality is increasing. The nation is overconsuming and underinnovating. China and India are surging. Not all of these challenges can be addressed by the spontaneous healing powers of the market.
Most important, it would be an intellectual tragedy. Conservatism is supposed to be nonideological and context-driven. If all government action is automatically dismissed as quasi socialist, then there is no need to think. A pall of dogmatism will settle over the right.
Republicans are riding a wave of revulsion about what is happening in Washington. But it is also time to start talking about the day after tomorrow, after the centralizing forces are thwarted. I hope that as Arthur Brooks and Paul Ryan lead a resurgent conservatism, they’ll think about the limited-but-energetic government tradition, which stands between Barry Goldwater and François Mitterrand, but at the heart of the American experience.
Jeff Flake's anti-government fanaticism will make sure he takes away everything good that the federal government has ever done. He'll end your Social Security, Medicare, and even support for interstate highways. He's a menace to America, a threat to our way of life. Jeff Flake's plans to destroy the America he so despises must be opposed by all patriots.