The point of departure for my essay on "The Trouble with Limited
Government" in the Claremont Review of Books was a
National Review cover story that Senior Editor Ramesh
Ponnuru wrote last November. In that article, he said that:
[T]he real crisis of conservatism…can be boiled down to
two propositions. The first is that, at least as the American
electorate is presently constituted, there is no imaginable
political coalition…capable of sustaining a majority
that takes a reduction of the scope of the federal government
as one of its central tasks. The second [proposition] is that
modern American conservatism is incapable of organizing itself
without taking that as a central mission.
Thus, we are presented with "Ramesh's dilemma": There can be no
political coalition built around the principle of limited
government, yet limited government is one of the central
principles of modern American conservatism.
After thinking about the crisis Ramesh described, I went through
the Office of Management and Budget historical tables that
accompany the annual budget to compile some statistics for my own
article. I used them to belabor the obvious, which is that
conservatives have very little to boast about in their fight
against Big Government. The Ronald Reagan-Newt Gingrich-George H.
W. Bush era saw a more emphatically conservative Republican
Party attain parity-or something a little better than parity-with a
more hesitantly liberal Democratic Party. Nevertheless, in
1981, the year President Reagan took office, the federal government
spent $678 billion; in 2006, it spent $2,655 billion. Adjust that
292 percent increase for inflation, and the federal government is
still spending 84 percent more than it did when Reagan became
President-in a country whose population has grown by only 30
A conservative who wanted to put the best face on the past
quarter-century would point out that spending by all levels of
government in America- federal, state, and local-was 31.6 percent
of gross domestic product in 1981 and 31.8 percent in 2006. Or he
might say that conservatives haven't reduced the size of government
but have caused it to grow more slowly than it used to. Per capita
federal spending, adjusted for inflation, was 41 percent
higher in 2006 than in 1981; by comparison, it was 94 percent
higher in 1981 than in 1956.
Conservatives who defend such "accomplishments," however,
are clearly defining efficacy down. Conservatives who cheered when
the newly inaugurated President Reagan declared his "intention
to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment" did
not anticipate that they would be asked to celebrate a "victory"
that looks so much like a long retreat.
Even the stable size of the public sector, relative to GDP, says
more about the dynamic economy of the past quarter-century-the Dow
Jones Industrial Average closed at 777 in August 1982-than
about restraining Big Government. A more prosperous society
will need more of some government functions than a less prosperous
one. More people will travel by plane and drive cars, for example,
requiring more roads, airports, and air traffic controllers. More
children will spend more years attending school, requiring more
teachers and classrooms. Generally, though, a growing economy
should see more people able to spend more money on their own
health, education, and welfare, allowing the government to
spend less. It hasn't worked out that way.
The reason why conservatives have failed to rein in Big
Government is that the task is very hard. If it were easy, it would
have been done by now. The reason it's hard is that
liberalism's sales pitch-we want the government to give things to
you and do things for you-has never gone out of style. (The
conservative counterargument, about how such a government
is going to have to do things to you and take things from you,
makes bigger, more problematic claims on voters' time and
Worse still from conservatives' perspective, liberalism
lends itself to narrowcasting. Liberals don't have to sell Big
Government or the welfare state all at once. Every program creates
its own constituency, and every constituency is much more
interested in sustaining and expanding that program than the
general public will ever be in ending or curtailing it. The
correlation of political forces, then, is always pushing the scope
of governmental activity outward.
What Is to Be Done? Can the Dilemma Be
So what is to be done? This is Lenin's question applied to
Ramesh's dilemma. I have no tidy answer to offer today. I do wish
to bring your attention to several considerations in the hope that
conservatives can think through the trouble with limited
The responses to Ramesh's dilemma fall into two broad
categories: We can either reject it or accept it. Rejecting it
means challenging its two propositions. Accepting the dilemma, on
the other hand, means accepting that both propositions are true,
and that they're incompatible, and then trying to figure out a way
to either live with or resolve Ramesh's dilemma.
Can We Dispute Its Propositions? Can a Majority Be Built
Around the Idea of Limited Government?
Let's talk first about rejecting the dilemma by disputing its
propositions. The argument against Ramesh's first proposition is
that a majority coalition for reducing the scope of the
federal government is not unimaginable. That
proposition rests on an interpretation of recent political history.
One of the most important things graduate schools try to teach
young historians is to be on guard against the fallacy of
"retrospective determinism"-the belief that because something did
happen, it had to have happened. Once an event has occurred, it
acquires the weight of its own factuality. It becomes
seductively clear that every relevant prior event was
paving the road that led, inevitably, to the occurrence under
Retrospective determinism is a problem not just for historians,
but for anyone trying to make sense of some slice of the human
record. You see it on the sports pages every day. The Boston Red
Sox won the World Series last month, giving rise to dozens of
articles about the superiority of their management, scouting, and
personnel decisions. Boston, however, trailed the Cleveland
Indians three games to one in the American League Championship
Series. If Cleveland had managed just one more victory, Boston
would not have gone to the World Series, and none of those articles
about how the Red Sox are so well run would have been
published-even though the objective facts about the organization
wouldn't have been any different.
The corollary of the proposition that because something did
happen, it had to have happened is that because something didn't
happen, it couldn't have happened. The fact that conservatives
didn't rein in Big Government after 1980 more or less proves they
couldn't have. Just because this is our brains' default option for
making sense of things doesn't prove that it's wrong, of course.
When the history of the Reagan-Gingrich era is written, the
impossibility of downsizing government may turn out to be the best
explanation for what did and didn't happen.
But it's not the only possible explanation. There's a case to be
made that the Reagan-Gingrich attempt to curtail Big Government
failed for reasons that were accidentally rather than essentially
related to the enterprise. If different calculations had been made,
if different people had been in power, then conservatives might
have made a lot more headway than they did. The depressing account
of the 1995 government shutdown in Major Garrett's book on the
class of '94 Republicans, for example, shows that despite all the
miscalculations that led to that juncture, the GOP was still very
close to achieving real reductions-until panic set in and
Republicans snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
We don't have time today to scrutinize fiscal politics over
the past quarter-century. I raise the point only to suggest that if
we accept or even entertain the idea that the past might have
turned out differently, then it's possible to be less
fatalistic about the prospects for conservatives who want to limit
government in the future. Even if I had more time and wanted
to talk about nothing else today, I don't believe that I would try
to strike through Ramesh's first proposition. But I believe it's
possible to at least put a question mark after it.
Can Modern American Conservatism Abandon the Cause of
The argument against Ramesh's second proposition would be
that conservatism is capable of organizing itself
without taking the reduction of the scope of government as a
central task. Conservatives needn't become enthusiasts for Big
Government or even stop opposing it. The terms of the
proposition lend themselves to making the reduction of
government a second-order goal rather than a central one. Since, if
Ramesh's first proposition is true, negligible gains against Big
Government are what conservatives are going to have to settle for
anyway, quietly reordering our priorities may be only a concession
The question is about the nature of such a post- limited
government conservatism. Conservatism will have to be about
something else. Conservatives will conserve or restore other
things, not limited government.
Generically, conservatives want to conserve things that are both
valuable and vulnerable. If they're valuable, they deserve
conservation, and if they're vulnerable, they need it. In America,
the republic- the experiment in self-government-is both
valuable and vulnerable. Conservatives who make its
stewardship a high priority might concentrate on defending the
nation against those who threaten it. Opposing the Soviet Union was
a central task for conservatives for nearly half a century.
Opposing jihadism is such a task now, and wary vigilance against
China may be part of it in the future.
The domestic agenda for post-limited government
conservatives could be concerned with promoting the
dispositions and habits in the citizenry that are essential to the
success of the experiment in self-government. Whatever you think of
the group that went by the name, America does need a moral
majority, because enlightened self-interest can do only so much to
support the cause of republican government.
There's no guarantee that a post-limited government
conservatism preoccupied with the politics of national security and
the sociology of virtue will either (a) command the assent and
enthusiasm of enough conservatives to form a coherent political
force or (b) attract enough votes to be more electorally
competitive than limited-government conservatism. Indeed, the
enthusiasm, coherence, and votes lost by downgrading the importance
of limiting government may outweigh the gains. But
conservatives are going to look for alternatives to watching
their movement succumb to the crisis Ramesh has described, and this
attempt, or something like it, will be one of them.
Dealing With, or Resolving, the Dilemma
The Libertarian Response
The alternative to rejecting Ramesh's dilemma is accepting it,
which means finding a way to either live with it or resolve it.
Libertarians have their way of living with the dilemma. Reducing
the scope of government in America is, for them, a
non-negotiable principle. Thus, it is better for conservatism
to lose elections, even lots of elections, than lose its soul. If
push comes to shove, libertarians would rather see conservatism
become, again, a scorned fringe movement than one that compromises
its raison d'etre in order to be electorally
Libertarians, however, hope push won't come to shove and believe
they have a way to resolve Ramesh's dilemma. Their hope is that the
principle of limited government will pervade the entire
conservative agenda and attract enough votes to make it
electorally competitive. They want to apply that principle to not
only the welfare state, but social policy and national security as
The result is an ideology that is a photographic negative of the
post-limited government conservatism we've sketched out.
Welfare state programs would be cut back, lifestyle diversity would
be tolerated serenely, and threats to national security would
be construed narrowly enough to justify a diminished military.
Libertarianism asks conservatives to say "Welcome aboard"
to a lot of voters who don't think of themselves as particularly
conservative and puts a lot of other conservatives who've been on
board a long time into the life rafts. The question that must be
posed about the libertarian resolution is the same one that must be
posed about post-limited government conservatism: Is the
number of voters it gathers in greater or lesser than the
number it drives out?
Post-limited government conservatism may be problematic, but
it's hard to see how the conservative coalition can expand by
doing all the contracting libertarians have in mind. Once
you've shown social conservatives the door and then ushered out
conservatives who stress the vigorous prosecution of national
security, you're going to have to find lots of new voters
to come out ahead. Perhaps the marginalization of conservatism is
not only a result libertarians are willing to accept, but one they
The Neoconservative Alternative
There's a second way to accept Ramesh's dilemma. I'm afraid
I'm going to have to call it the neoconservative alternative.
I hesitate to do so, since that term has been the source of so much
confusion and controversy. It was, however, the godfather of
neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, who called for a "conservative
welfare state." For my purposes today, I'm using "neoconservatism"
strictly to refer to the efforts to grapple with Kristol's term, to
figure out what a conservative welfare state can and should
The libertarian position, of course, is that a conservative
welfare state is a contradiction in terms, and the effort to
achieve one is going to be a waste of time, at best, and probably
counterproductive in the sense that accommodating the welfare state
will change conservatism for the worse much more than conservatism
will change the welfare state for the better. The question, then,
is whether conservatives can conservatize the welfare state without
abolishing it and what such an endeavor would mean.
There are two possible answers to this question, distinct but
not mutually exclusive. The first is that the central task of a
conservative welfare state is to mitigate the economic and social
damage inflicted by the liberal rendering of it. The second is that
the conservative welfare state will work to undo the political
damage caused by the liberal one.
Mitigating the Economic and Social Consequences of Modern
Conservatives who want a welfare state that mitigates
liberalism's economic and social consequences look at Western
Europe's social democracies- France in particular-and say,
"That's what we don't want to happen here." What they mean
is that we don't want to have policies and attitudes that
discourage the multiplication of wealth but encourage the
division of it. We don't want dependency, we don't want endless
clamoring for ever-larger entitlements, we don't want endless
hectoring of entrepreneurs, and we don't want regulation to
reach the point that private enterprise becomes a
contradiction in terms, since businessmen worry much more
about placating the bureaucracies that govern their destiny than
about satisfying their customers.
George Will has recently described the welfare state tempered by
these fears. It will, he said, "presuppose economic dynamism
sufficient to generate investments, job-creation, corporate profits
and individuals' incomes from which come tax revenues needed to
fund entitlements." Thus, it will worry much more than American
liberals and European social democrats are inclined to about
excessive taxes, regulations, and government spending. Moreover,
says Will, a conservative welfare state will work to encourage
rather than discourage "attributes and attitudes-a future
orientation, self-reliance, individual responsibility for healthy
living-that are essential for dignified living in an economically
The conservative welfare state, like the liberal one, rests on
the belief that a decent society is obligated to prevent the
small minority of citizens who are chronically unable to fend for
themselves, and the larger minority occasionally and transitionally
unable to do so, from leading miserable lives and that government
programs will be a necessary part of how a decent society acts on
The conservative welfare state, unlike the liberal one, emphasizes
that a nation wealthy enough even to have a welfare state is
wealthy enough to have lots of people who don't need most of what
the welfare state provides. It will express that belief by limiting
its programs to poor people through means-testing and by devising,
for people who aren't poor, incentives like Health Savings Accounts
and 401(k) plans to keep them out of poverty and, thus, ineligible
for the means-tested programs.
Mitigating the Political Damage of Modern Liberalism:
Rebuilding the "Legitimacy Barrier"
The second understanding of the conservative welfare
state-determined to mitigate the political damage inflicted by
liberalism-takes its bearings from the political scientist Theodore
Lowi, who's not even a conservative. Lowi argued 40 years ago in
his book The End of Liberalism that modern liberalism has left us
with "a government that is unlimited in scope but formless in
action." Such a government "can neither plan nor achieve justice"
because, Lowi says, "liberalism replaces planning with bargaining"
and creates a regime of "policy without law."
For conservatives who view our political history this way, the
decisive break occurred not in 1933, when the New Deal started
creating new programs and spending more money, but in 1937, when
the Supreme Court basically threw in the towel. In a series of
decisions upholding exactly the sort of programs it had been
striking down during and before FDR's first term, the Court
replaced the Constitution of enumerated powers and limited
government with a new, anything-goes constitutional
In the words of the legal historian Bernard Schwartz, "To the
post-1937 Supreme Court, the Congress, charged with all of the
legislative powers granted by the Constitution, is entitled to its
own choice among all rationally permissible opinions as to what the
Constitution allows." The spirit of this new understanding moved
one law professor to argue recently that the "proper constitutional
response" to concerns about Congress overstepping its authority and
regulating any activity it chooses is, "So what?"
The public's understanding of the Constitution has followed the
Court's, and vigilant antipathy to government expansion, which was
once a decisive factor in American political life, is now a faint
memory. The political scientist James Q. Wilson calls this
development the fall of the "legitimacy barrier." In the aftermath
of that fall, "New programs need not await the advent of a crisis
or an extraordinary majority, because no program is any longer
'new'- it is seen, rather, as an extension, a modification, or an
enlargement of something the government is already doing. Since
there is virtually nothing the government has not tried to do,"
Wilson says, "there is little it cannot be asked to do."
The crucial task for this second understanding of the
conservative welfare state is to rebuild a legitimacy barrier
that clearly distinguishes which goals the government may pursue,
and which means it may employ, from those it may not. Such an
endeavor will be different from the libertarian goal of
zeroing out the welfare state.
Michael Greve, the director of the American Enterprise
Institute's Federalism Project, admires the jurisprudence of the
pre-1937 Supreme Court. He notes, however, that much of the New
Deal, much of the welfare state generally, would be permitted
by the kind of legitimacy barrier that existed then and which he
would like to see again. "New Deal programs that served a
discernible public purpose were never [in danger of being
ruled unconstitutional]," he writes. "Nothing in the
Constitution precluded the New Deal from paying unemployed artists
to adorn U.S. post offices with Soviet-Realist murals. And contrary
to progressive myth, a properly structured Social Security
system was never likely to be invalidated" by the Court.
The question is whether conservatives can rebuild the
legitimacy barriers demolished in the 1930s and, if so, where? The
pre-1937 Constitution constrained government because jurists
emphasized the due process and interstate commerce clauses,
the enumeration of congressional powers, and the impermissibility
of Congress delegating those powers to administrative agencies. The
reconstruction of a legitimacy barrier formed by those
particular restraints is a difficult and doubtful prospect.
The alternative to pursuing it is to erect the legitimacy barrier
elsewhere. What these new restraints on government will be, and how
they can be enacted and enforced, are difficult questions some
conservatives have wrestled with but to which there are, as yet, no
clear and compelling answers.
Conclusion: Limited Government vs. Small
I wish I myself had some clear and compelling answers. Then,
instead of just stopping my talk, I could conclude it with wise and
persuasive words about the present state of conservatism and where
we should go from here. I'm afraid, however, that the best I can do
is to leave you with a distinction that arises from the second
variant on the idea of a conservative welfare state. That
distinction is between small-government conservatism and
Small-government conservatism is opposed to Big Government. But
"big" and "small" are relative terms, and liberals are always
working to move the goal posts. "We're in favor of a lot of things
and we're against mighty few," Lyndon Johnson said in 1964, and
that's about as rigorous as the liberal theory of the welfare state
American liberals wake up every morning thinking about all
the suffering and injustice they could alleviate if only the U.S.
public sector weren't forced to scrape by with 32 percent of our
GDP. The trouble is that Sweden's social democrats wake up
every morning thinking about all the suffering and injustice
they could alleviate if only their public sector weren't
forced to scrape by with 57 percent of Sweden's GDP. American
liberals speak frequently and forcefully about all the ways the
U.S. would be a better place if we ran this country more like
Sweden. They speak rarely and vaguely about which features of
the European social democracies, if any, they consider too
expensive or too intrusive.
Limited-government conservatism confronts this problem more
directly, because it is opposed not to Big Government, but to
Unlimited Government. The evil it works against is not that
liberalism gives us Big Government but that liberalism lacks a
limiting principle. The absence of such a principle is not just an
oversight, not something liberals have been meaning to get around
to for 75 years but which somehow got lost in their in-basket. The
inability-the refusal, really-to say what it would mean for the
welfare state to grow too big and spend too much is a defining
feature of American liberalism.
Conservatives who want to fight that battle on behalf of limited
government are going to need an answer to the question, "Limited by
what?" Historically, American government was limited by the
principle that it existed only to secure our natural rights. The
future of the conservative movement will depend heavily on three
- Can the natural rights principle be reinvigorated as a
constraint on government?
- If not, can some other principle effectively restrain the
growth of government?
- And, finally, if the natural rights principle is dead and
nothing new can take its place, how do conservatives arrange terms
of surrender to the advocates of Unlimited Government and move on
to fight other battles?
William Voegeli, Ph.D., is a Visiting Scholar at the Henry
Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern
World at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont,