TCS Daily

Why Is Government Getting So Big?

By Nathan Smith - October 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Why is the government getting so big? Too-clever-by-half libertarians who voted Democrat deserve some of the blame.

To understand why, consider the imaginary Democratic Republic of Ruritania, in which there is only one political issue -- the size of government -- and two political parties, the Right and the Left. The Right is a libertarian-leaning party that wants a smaller government. The Left is a socialist-leaning party that wants a bigger government.

Voters in Ruritania are ranked on a political preference scale from 0 (small government) to 100 (big government). Each voter votes for the party whose platform -- which consists of a proposal for how big the government should be -- is closer to his own preferences.

If the Right proposes a size-45 government, and the Left proposes a size-60 government, all voters who rank 52 and below will vote for the Right, and all voters rank 53 and above will vote for the Left. In other words, the election will look something like this:


Two-party politics: how the center holds

But Ruritanian elections are never 45 vs. 60 because politicians in Ruritania are pragmatic. Each believes sincerely in small, or big, government. But their first priority is to get elected. There's no use being so "principled" that you lose, the parties reason. Instead, they always choose the platform they believe will maximize their vote share (and then govern accordingly, for in Ruritania, campaign promises are always kept). The parties aim for the center.

Thus, if the Right picks 45, the Left picks 46. If the Left picks 62, the Right picks 61. In every election, the platforms of the two Ruritanian parties are nearly identical.

However, because the parties have imperfect information about the underlying political preference distribution of the electorate, their platforms vary somewhat from year to year. One election may look like this:


The next one, like this:


         The one after that, like this:

There are three negative features of Ruritania's political system.

First, the base of each party always feels frustrated and betrayed. They pound the pavement, knock on doors, attend rallies, write campaign contribution checks, all for the sake of the small-, or big-, government dream, but time after time their party sticks to a dreary centrism. What's the point? -- they perennially wonder.

Second, the parties don't give voters much of a choice (as Mark Steyn puts it). Every election is a yawn, Tweedle Left vs. Tweedle Right. No one expects elections to result in major policy changes. Hence, voter turnout in Ruritania is perennially low.

Third, the public can't have much respect for its politicians, who are constantly selling out their principles in order to win elections.

The system also has one highly ironic feature: government is always bigger when the Right is in power, and smaller when the Left is in power. This occurs because the parties' platforms move together along the political spectrum, with the Right winning whenever the platforms are to the left of the mid-point, and the Left winning whenever the platforms are to the right of the mid-point.

Yet the system's virtues outweigh its vices.

First, the outcome of elections is admirably democratic in that the actual size of government always stays near the mid-point of voters' preferences. This minimizes voter dissatisfaction, if voter dissatisfaction is defined as the difference between each voters' preference rank and the actual, realized size of government.

Second, the system achieves a certain continuity in government, with the size of government fluctuating only within the mid-40s to mid-50s range. If each party sought to choose the platform to please the mid-point of its own base, the Right would pick platforms of about 25, the Left of about 75, the government would expand or contract sharply every time the opposition won an election. A consistently mid-sized government makes life easier for citizens, businessmen and bureaucrats.

And while frustrated party activists may feel that it's impossible to change the system, that's not true. It's just that, to make change happen, they need, not to get their candidates elected, but to change their fellow citizens' minds. It's not a matter of winning the game, but of moving the game board.

Enter the Clever Libertarians

The troubles begin for Ruritania when academia and the media drift to the left, and start pulling the Left party along with them. Left political leaders start pitching platforms like 56, 58, and 60. As a result, their electoral performance deteriorates. The Right, following the usual rule, responds with platforms of 55, 57, and 59, and wins by increasing margins, but their base gets angry. (Angrier, that is -- the base is always angry in Ruritania.)

Among those who would generally vote for the Right is a group that we'll call the Clever Libertarians. These people are far to the small-government end of the political spectrum, rank 10 and below.

But, outraged by the expansion of government under Right rule, the Clever Libertarians are stewing about what they can do about it, when some of them take a look at recent history and realize that -- as was pointed out above -- government is smaller when the Left is in power!

After all, President Clooney managed to keep spending under control (they reminisce); government in those days was only size 45! Now it's in the 50s and rising! This observation, combined with their fury at the Right's betrayal, persuades the Clever Libertarians to pursue their small-government dream by ignoring the small-government rhetoric of the Right (hypocrites and liars!), and voting for the Left instead.

The perils of tactical voting

How will the Clever Libertarians' switch affect Ruritania's politics?

In the next election, the Left, still afflicted with bad advice from friendly journalists and professors, picks a platform of 57. The Right answers with a platform of 56. With the Clever Libertarians' support, the Right would get 56% of the vote. But this time, Clever Libertarian pundits reserve their fire to blast Right politicians, demanding that they be "held accountable" for their spending, and they sway a 5% chunk out of the Right's base to vote for the Left. Accordingly, the Right wins, but only narrowly, 51% to 49%.

The Left is encouraged by the vote. They decide (with the help of the unfortunate eloquence of their journalist and professor friends) that the electorate is moving in their direction, and decide to be even more ambitious next time. So, in the next election, the Left runs with a platform of 61. The Right answers with a platform of 60. Outraged that the Right is going to make government even bigger, the Clever Libertarians try even harder this time, and persuade 12% of conservative voters to switch to the Left. The Right gets only 48% this time, while the Left wins with 52%.

The Clever Libertarians celebrate, thinking that the days of President Clooney have returned. So does the Left, which thinks the electorate has finally seen the light and endorsed their socialist dream.

When the Left comes to power and runs a size-61 government, some of the Clever Libertarians' converts start to doubt -- and most of the clever-libertarian bloc decides to switch back to the Right next time around. But meanwhile, the Right, burned by their defeat, seeks to reclaim power by imitating the triumphant Left. They pitch a platform of 64 for the next election, hoping to recapture some of the "centrist voters" that (so they assume) supported the Left in the last election, and to avoid being left high and dry by voters' (evidently) increasing preference for big government. (The left-leaning media and academia ridicule rumors that the Left owes its victory to conservatives and libertarians voting tactically.) The Left answers with a platform of 65...

Meanwhile, approval ratings for the government continue to drift downward. Voters are fed up with something or other, though the political class is mystified as to what.

Who's to blame for big government?

What went wrong? Why did Ruritania's government get so big?

The Right deserves some of the blame. Right politicians shouldn't have preached a small-government philosophy, if they were going to expand the government so much.

On the other hand, the Right was just being opportunist, looking out for its own electoral self-interest, the way Ruritanian parties always do. And formerly, when both parties were doing that, the system worked well. In that sense, the deterioration of the system and the excessive growth of government is not the Right's fault.

The Left deserves at least as much blame as the Right. Unlike the Right, the Left stayed true to its big-government principles. Arguably, that is to their credit. But the job of a democratic politician is not just to do what he believes in, it's also to give the people what they want. The Left's failure to ascertain the people's desires not only kept them out of power (mostly), it also made them unable to serve as a competitive opposition which could discipline the Right.

But then, the Left, too, may be partially forgiven, because they were getting confusing signals from the voters. They ran a big-government platform, and got almost half, or more than half, of the vote. It's asking a lot to expect the Left to be humble enough to admit that many of those voters were not really voting for them at all, but merely against the other guys.

So when we're done blaming the Right and the Left, there's plenty of blame left over for the Too-Clever-By-Half Libertarians. If they'd thought it through properly, they'd have known their strategy would backfire.

Meanwhile, back in America...

Ruritania, of course, is not a faraway country; it is a stylized model of US politics in the recent past (with an apocryphal Kerry-victory scenario included for variety). The most eminent Clever Libertarian today is überblogger Andrew Sullivan, a Reaganite conservative who endorsed John Kerry last year. Now that a pork-heavy highway bill, a proposal to lavish $200 billion of Katrina relief on (reputedly corrupt) Louisiana and the Gulf States, and Tom DeLay's indictment for ethics violations are provoking a storm of disgust with the GOP among conservatives, Sullivan feels vindicated. Recently Sullivan put it this way:

        I became a conservative because I saw in [England] what a terrible, 
        incompetent, soul-destroying thing big government socialism is. It breaks my 
        heart to see much of it now being implemented in America - by Republicans... 
        I'm sick of [this president]. Sick of the naked politicization of everything 
        (Karl Rove over-seeing reconstruction?); sick of the utter refusal to acknowledge 
        that there is a limit to what the federal government can borrow from this 
        and the next generation; sick of the hijacking of the conservative tradition for 
        a vast increase in the power and size of government, with only a feigned attempt 
        at making it more effective... I think Kerry would have made a pretty poor 
        president. But Bush was already clearly on course for disaster (and had 
        already made a basket case of Iraq)... When do we hold a formal wake for the 
        end of conservatism?.... $873 BILLION: That's what the annual federal deficit 
        will be by 2015 on the current Bush course. Merely to balance the budget by 
        then, we'd need a 37 percent tax hike. Or we can cut spending. We should 
        cut spending. The test of today's GOP will be over which path they take 
        in the future. God knows, this president won't make the hard calls. It's up 
        to the Congress. ... I think we had... learned by last November that Bush never 
        listens to criticism (except, perhaps, from his wife); that his re-election would 
        confirm him in all the worst judgment calls of his presidency; that his administration 
        was slowly killing off conservatism as we had known it; it was manifestly 
        incompetent and immune to correction; and that the only responsible 
        thing was therefore to back Kerry as the lesser of two evils
. (my emphasis)

I should admit to one bias here. I'm 27, living in what we may call the Gulf States of American demography, right in the path of Hurricane Social Security. Before the Democrats showed their terrifyingly united determination to defund the levees of private accounts, I regarded the Democrats with relative equanimity. Now that the Democrats have decided to consign many members of my generation, especially poorer and darker-skinned ones who can't afford the automobiles of 401(k)'s in order to evacuate the Social Security slums, to premature death in suddenly-bankrupt nursing homes amidst the toxic floodwaters of 27% benefit cuts, I can't help but regard them as the enemy of my particular subsection of the electorate.

In view of the Democrats' refusal to avert a foreseeable crisis, I strongly object to Sullivan's use of the word "responsible" in connection with them. But that's partly just me, because of who I am, my place in life. If I were a forty-something rather than a twenty-something, I might have different priorities.

My biases aside, Sullivan has good intentions and his grievances against the GOP are largely justified. But his conclusion that conservatives should have supported Kerry is a nonsequitur. Since Kerry invariably criticized Bush for spending (and taxing) too little-on No Child Left Behind, on Pell Grants, on military equipment, on training, on unemployment benefits, on health care, on you-name-it-a claim that Kerry's election would somehow have made government smaller is, at the least, counter-intuitive.

What's missing from Sullivan's argument is an analysis of politics as a strategic interaction, like my Ruritanian model, that shows how the strategy Sullivan advocates will lead to the results he hopes for. Instead-this is really the only "argument" the Clever Libertarians have-Sullivan offers a casual historical allusion to the 1990s:

        History might eventually judge that the 1990s was the high water-mark 
        for a certain kind of conservatism - smaller but more effective government. 
        Ironic it happened under a Democratic president.

Yes, we all love the 1990s. But it doesn't follow that having a Democratic president and a Republican Congress will bring them back.

Instead, it's far more likely that the strange and fortuitous synergy between Clinton and the Contract with America Congress that made the 1990s so nice was a one-off.

First, Bill Clinton was elected without a mandate. Ross Perot handed him the election by splitting the conservative vote. Having won only 43% of the vote, Clinton should have known the public wasn't really behind him -- though it took another punch-in-the-face from voters in 1994 to really wean him of his old liberalism. What the 1990s analogy might argue for is supporting a McCain insurgency, so that the Democrats would recover the White House without a mandate for their agenda. It gives no grounds for thinking that a liberal Democrat president with a majority mandate would benefit the small-government cause.

Second, while the 1990s were great for the people, the economy, and the country, they were frustrating for the Republicans and Democrats, in different ways. For Republicans after 1994, they managed to move policy in a conservative direction, but at the expense of their own popularity vis-à-vis Clinton, who got re-elected, and the Democrats, who kept picking up seats in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, for Democrats, they had their man in the White House, but he governed mostly like an Eisenhower Republican, and presided over the greatest landmark of conservative legislation in fifty years: welfare reform. Democrats still boast about the greatness of the Clinton administration for political gain. But as Howard Fineman has observed:

        The purported inevitability of Hillary Rodham Clinton excites some Democrats, 
        but deeply depresses some others, both inside and outside the Beltway.

        Her forcefulness and talent-not to mention her well-oiled money machine-bring 
        respect from party insiders and outsiders alike. But there is an undercurrent 
        of unease about the "Back to the Future" quality of another Clinton 
        candidacy. Do we really want to relive the Clinton Years? Under their breath, 
        even many Clinton acolytes tend to say "NO."

In short, Republicans sacrificed partisan interests to ideological interests in the 1990s, and Democrats sacrificed ideological interests to partisan interests. Now the tables have turned. Republicans are selling out small government to increase their vote share, while Democrats have retreated to the old liberal faith even if it means losing. Under those circumstances, the cohabitation of a Democrat president, determined to avoid the fate of Clinton, and a Republican Congress, determined to avoid the fate of Gingrich, would probably have the opposite effect from the 1990s. Kerry would try to push through his big, liberal agenda; passionate populist vice-president John Edwards would keep preaching the plight of the poor; and the corrupt and pork-hungry Congress of Tom DeLay-demoralized by Bush's defeat-would cut deals in hopes of saving their seats. Of course Kerry-Edwards would propose a huge hurricane-relief package to symbolize a new era of big-government kindness, and of course (a few, and enough) Republicans would support it-what better way to look like the Grinch who stole Christmas than to vote against help for flood-ravaged people? And conservative pundits wouldn't have the luxury of protesting something as comparatively benign as hurricane relief. They'd be in a desperate last stand against socialized medicine and a return of the Great Society welfare state.

I commend Sullivan for protesting against big government, but I also think Sullivan and other Clever Libertarians help cause the state of affairs they're protesting against. If Andrew Sullivan and his fellow small-government conservatives had supported Bush, Bush might have won 55-44 instead of 51-48. In that case, Bush wouldn't need to try to expand the Republican base with a big Katrina relief package. Bush would be stronger vis-à-vis the Democrats, and the conservative base would be stronger vis-à-vis Bush.

Instead, John Kerry's 48% is the most that an unreconstructed liberal candidate has received since Jimmy Carter in 1976. If the political class has concluded that the median voter wants a bigger government, that is (though I hate to say it) not an unreasonable interpretation of our votes.

But why am I dumping on Sullivan now? Shouldn't we let bygones be bygones? The reason I bring it up is that clever-libertarian / clever-conservative sophistry seems to be spreading, to the Wall Street Journal among other places. The other day, Brendan Miniter argued for the Democrats as a "penny-wise" alternative (based on an arcane reference to the 1950s). Stephen Moore threatened that "the bill for Katrina may come due next November," i.e. Bush will alienate voters. To their credit, Moore and Miniter are probably being strategic: they're pretending that if the Republicans don't listen to them, they have somewhere else to go, though they probably know they don't. But they might still talk some readers into clever-libertarianism; and if they do get some people to vote Democrat, government will only get bigger.

Voters don't get to be clever. Sure, it sucks. It's humiliating. You feel dirty. But you have to hold your nose and pull the lever for the party that claims to want smaller government, however adrift they might be. Otherwise you just empower the other side.

Nathan Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C. He has written about partisan politics here and here, and about Social Security reform here and here .


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