By Frank Hill
To answer that question, we think you have to go back to the Founders. Again. Of course.
Who were the ‘true’ conservatives back in 1787 when they sat down in Philadelphia to write the hallowed US Constitution that even George Stephanopoulus seemed to have trouble understanding and articulating in his cumbersome question to Mitt Romney about banning contraception in any state or something like that?
First, all the Founders were united in their opposition to the King of England, George III and the concentration of power embodied in him and his office of authority over the colonies. We think they would be horrified at the concentration of power in the Executive Branch today when they drew up our US Congress as being the epitome of self-governance.
Thomas Jefferson also wrote about how he opposed the concentration of power in the hands of few leaders in the House and the development of ‘factions’ because they tend to thwart the ‘good of all the nation’ when issues of importance are considered.
And then Mr. Jefferson founded the second ‘factional’ political party in American history, the Democratic-Republican Party in the early 1790’s to counteract the ‘factional’ Federalist Party founded by Alexander Hamilton. So go figure how a people can stage a bloody, costly revolution for 5 years, (1776-1781); hammer out a Constitution (1787); take 2 years to ratify it (by 1789)…and then less than 5 years later start bickering again amongst themselves.
Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison argued for ‘limited’ government with power to be disbursed throughout the nation down to the lowest level possible, mainly the states and localities where people knew where their legislators lived, and could get to their home whenever they wanted.
Mr. Hamilton did not. He argued for a strong central government located in Washington, DC with powers to regulate and maintain a central banking system and provide a working relationship with their former rulers, the British.
Based on the way America has developed over the past 80 years, and especially over the last 50 and really in the last 10 years, it is fair to say that Mr. Hamilton has ‘won’ that debate. Hands-down.
Guess what level of federal spending relative to GDP was in America for the vast majority of our history?
1% or less from 1789 to about 1920 or so. That is 130 years out of our 222-year history or about 60% of our nation’s history.
Federal spending was only about 3% of GDP when the ‘First Big Bang’ of economic calamities really hit the US in the Great Depression (GD). This Big Bad Economic Retrenchment we are still working our way through is chicken feed compared to that economic conflagration.
Go ahead. Ask any of your grandparents or parents who lived through the GD and see what they have to say about their struggles growing up.
You’ll be glad we are going through this one instead by comparison.
FDR came along with his New Deal and by 1940, guess what his ‘massive’ expansion of federal spending had taken us to relative to GDP?
10%. By comparison to current levels of government involvement in our economy, that looks like a veritable steal if you are a 'small government conservative' of today.
Federal government spending is close to 25% of GDP today. (although it is a little bit distorted because of the lack of economic growth since 2007. See 'Lies')
So which of the GOP candidates last night really and truly are in the mold of Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison by being the ‘true’ small government conservative in the strictest sense of their definition circa 1787?
None really except perhaps Ron Paul who has been willing to show his cards and propose massive spending cuts to the tune of $1 trillion in his first year as President.
His foreign policy isolationism, however, would throw him right in the face of Thomas Jefferson himself who sent the US ‘Navy’ such as it was in 1801 without an official declaration of war against the Barbary Pirates operating out of Tripoli. Which is really the reason why so many Reagan-era ‘conservatives’ and people who grew up and cut their teeth on his brand of conservatism are not supporting Mr. Paul. The world is a mean place and the US President has to be realistic and practical to defend our ‘national strategic interests’ (whenever you see this phrase, translate it to ‘oil’) whenever the need arises.
Most modern-day ‘conservatives’ are really the ‘Charles Barkley’ version of Big Government, you know, since he claims to have lost 50 pounds on Weight-Watchers. He is still ‘huge'; he is just not as ‘huge’ as he used to be.
Same with many modern-day ‘conservatives’. 'We are for (slightly) less government than those guys....and they are Beezelbub and Satan's Spawn to boot!'
Here are the questions to ask yourself to see if you qualify to be a ‘true’ Jeffersonian/Madisonian ‘small government conservative’ nowadays: (we'll have to have a 'true' Hamiltonian/FDR/LBJ/Obama 'large government quiz one day as well)
- Will you take a Social Security check paid mostly by your children and their co-workers when you turn 66?
- Will you demand Medicare benefits to the tune of at least a 50% federal taxpayer subsidy when you retire at age 65?
- Will you support an increase in the retirement age to age 70 to be more in line with the actuarial tables of life expectancy on an adjusted basis from age 65 that was decided as the ‘official’ retirement age in 1935?
- Will you support a complete elimination of special tax breaks for US corporations AND individuals including the mortgage interest deduction, charitable donations and employer-paid health insurance premiums in return for lower marginal tax rates?
- Will you support the elimination of any special federal spending program or tax break that does not benefit the entire nation as a whole such as certain critical defense programs (there’s waste there too by the bushel load); transportation, bridges and canals and airports and certain education programs? (Jefferson said we needed a public education system because an uneducated electorate will not support democracy for too long so let's not find out if he is proven right)
- Or are you mainly a ‘social conservative’, more concerned about the lack of moral, ethical and religious principles in America and want to limit abortion, gay rights?
- Maybe you want to send all of the 3-10 million (the number varies depending on which report you read) illegal immigrants back to Latin America in which case you better get used to not having your landscaping done, your kids nannied, your house cleaned or your addition being built for about 50% of what it would cost with legal labor.
It might also help explain why close to 35% of the people in two of the largest counties in North Carolina are now officially registering as Independents/Unaffiliateds. We don’t know if they are all Jeffersonian/Madisonian small-government conservatives. We have run into tons of them who are self-described social libertarians/fiscal conservatives though and they are fed up with the current system and demanding change in 2012.
Who is going to give this new 'change' to them? And does America even want 'small government' which means more 'freedom' (risk) any longer?
Mitt Romney said this 2012 election is going to be about the 'soul' for America. He will be channeling the Jeffersonian/Madisonian DNA for the rest of this campaign as the presumptive nominee after Saturday night's debates in New Hampshire.
Federalist/New Deal/Great Society President Obama has no intention of slowing down his drive for more government and higher taxes; he has said as much recently.
Where will you line up on this debate this year?
(Editor's Note: Frank Hill's resumé includes working as chief of staff for Senator Elizabeth Dole and Congressman Alex McMillan, serving on the House Budget Committee, and serving on the Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform. He takes on politics from a fiercely independent perspective at the blog Telemachus).