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Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservativism Brought Down the Republican Revolution Hardcover – February 16, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In this thorough political analysis, Tanner examines the transformation of conservative doctrine in America, decrying the movement towards big-government spending. Since being elected, George W. Bush has allowed the largest expansion of government spending since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society (when domestic spending increased by 27%). Today, polls report that 55% of the public consider the GOP to be the party of big government. According to Tanner, this shift is not circumstantial, a result of post-9/11 considerations, but rather a fundamental shift in the conservative paradigm. The new Republican Party is unconcerned with traditional conservative thinking-the kind propounded not just by long-standing luminaries as Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, but by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. Articulate and incisive, Tanner's critique provides a helpful overview of the issues facing conservatives today and an introduction to the myriad facets of contemporary conservative thinking-from national-greatness conservatives to technophiles to compassionate conservatism. Published by the Cato institute, a libertarian think tank, the ideological agenda is obvious-the book is dedicated to exposing the failures of big-government (i.e., anti-libertarian) policies-but Tanner's arguments are considerate and well-researched, and his optimistic belief in a return to small-government conservatism is largely appealing.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
For conservatives generally and the Republican Party in particular, now is a time of intense soul-searching. For the first time in a dozen years, Republicans have lost control of Congress. As a result, they are being forced to reexamine who they are and what they stand for.
It's about time. After all, more than a decade has passed since President Bill Clinton announced in his State of the Union address that "the era of big gov-ernment is over." Yet, since then, government has grown far bigger and far more intrusive. It spends more, regulates us more, and reaches far more into our daily lives than it did before the Republican Revolution. Behind this alarming trend stands the rise of a new brand of conservatism--one that believes big government can be used for conservative ends. It is a conservatism that ridicules F. A. Hayek and Barry Goldwater while embracing Teddy and even Franklin Roosevelt. It has more in common with Ted Kennedy than with Ronald Reagan.
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I originally thought this book would focus on the outrageous Medicare prescription drug benefit and the unconstitutional increase in education spending, but, while those issues are addressed, this author discusses so much more from Federal government setting the curriculum for local schools to consolidating power in the Executive Branch to setting laws and policy that affect the morals of the nation.
Some of it is predictable, but the author makes some good points on many issues. One issue that you hear about a lot is the price of gasoline. When George W. Bush was President he was criticized by his political opponents when the price of gasoline increased. Obama is getting the same treatment. But this book questions whether the President should be involved in manipulating gas prices. The author uses gasoline prices to illustrate how people expect the government to address various issues that truth be told the Federal government should not be involved in.
Another thought provoking comment he makes is with respect to marriage and poverty. It is well documented that children born outside of marriage are more likely to be in poverty. As a result some see marriage as a way out of poverty, but this author questions the cause/effect. Maybe out of wedlock births don't cause poverty. Perhaps other factors affect both family structure AND poverty. He's got a point.
After two hundred pages of criticizing others, the author paints his own vision of what government should be. His first recommendation is redrawing the lines between states' jurisdiction and the Federal government's jurisdiction (this might not sound like a big deal, but the author makes compelling points). Second, cut spending (and the author is very specific about the cuts that he proposes). Third, reform entitlements (he adds some thoughtful suggestions beginning with getting rid of the disgraceful Medicare prescription drug benefit). Fourth, link future tax cuts to cuts in spending. And fifth, term limits.
Minor Issue: There are a lot of positions in this book that are outside of the mainstream, and I like that even though I don't necessarily agree with every position he takes. But one thing that is annoying is his claim that the W. Bush tax cuts significantly increased revenues thereby cutting the deficit. Tax revenues tanked after the W. Bush tax cuts and remained low for years. It wasn't until 2005 that they surpassed the revenue collected in 2000. But this is just something the author mentions in passing. It's not a major theme of the book.
Tanner explores and explains the roots of "big-government conservatism," influential thinkers within the Republican tent that were never really believers in limited government to begin with. Instead, these groups, which included religious conservatives, so-called "neoconservatives," "national greatness conservatives," and followers of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, among others, did not seek to arrest the growth of government so much as to direct it towards ends of which they approved. "Conservatism" thus came to mean many things unrelated to limiting the reach of government, encompassing the likes of Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer, who spoke of conservative social values, but who often opposed addressing the factors (such as the increasing cost of federal entitlement programs) that cause government to grow. The goal of many of these thinkers (Gingrich being a prime example) was not to restrict the size of government, but to bolt new programs whose design they favored, on top of the old ones.
Tanner convincingly details how the transition of Republicans from a congressional minority to a governing party sealed the fate of limited government, with Republicans freely spending taxpayers' money in the service of their own re-elections.
Tanner is critical of President Bush as a big-government conservative, sometimes less fairly than at other times. It is true that the Medicare prescription drug benefit was an enormous expansion of federal benefit commitments. But it needs to be remembered that then-governor Bush as well as Congressional Republicans, ran on the promise of such a benefit in 2000. One can argue the wisdom of the policy, but one cannot fairly, as Bruce Bartlett does, label the delivery of a transparent campaign promise as a surprise or a "betrayal." One can fairly argue whether any such benefit should ever have been passed; but one should also acknowledge that the cost of the package enacted was significantly smaller than the one endorsed by Congressional Democrats, and further, that the elements of market competition within the program have brought costs in significantly lower than originally projected, either by CBO or by the Administration itself. Pull the President out of this equation, and the price tag for this benefit would have been much higher.
Looking past the big-ticket items such as the prescription drug benefit and the war on terror, it's clear that the Administration actually worked to hold down spending relative to the desires of Congressional Republicans. A typical example of this was with the highway bill, where Republicans joined Democrats in wanting to spend far more than the Administration would accept. This trend has, regrettably, continued even now that the Congress has passed to Democratic control. Republicans joined Democrats in over-riding the President's veto of a disgracefully bloated farm bill, expanding payments to farmers at a time of record farm prices, with even a majority of so-called conservative House Republicans voting to override. These and other events since this book's publication substantiate that the biggest problems for believers in limited government exist on the Capitol end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Tanner's book would have benefited from more attention to the structural impediments to restraining the growth of government. Both federal spending programs and tax indexation methods are geared to cause government to grow as a % of the economy under current law. Thus, believers in expanded government need not enact any new policies to get their wishes, whereas those who seek to keep government near its current size must continually prevail in passing legislation. As was seen in the recent obstruction of muh-needed Social Security reform, this is a tall order. Unless and until the structure of federal entitlement programs is changed, believers in limited government will remain at an enormous procedural disadvantage even if they reclaim the majority.
Tanner deserves enormous credit for recognizing that it's government spending - not just tax policy - that true conservatives need to take on. In some respects, supply-side politics has ill-served the cause of limited government, by urging politicians to make the easy call (lower taxes) while ignoring the tougher ones (cutting spending growth.) Only when political conservatism attaches equal weight to cutting spending as to cutting taxes will the policies that lead to bigger government be fought effectively.
True conservatives may not agree with all of Tanner's views or recommendations; the Republican party is unlikely to adopt wholesale the policy prescriptions of libertarians. But, to the extent that conservatives and libertarians agree that the growing economic power of government is a threat to their values, they will find much useful information in Tanner's excellent book.
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STARTING WITH REAGAN, the first betrayer. And not the last, too.