What about limited government?

Bill Kristol argues that conservatives should reconcile themselves to big government, or at least should “think twice before charging into battle against Obama under the banner of ‘small-government conservatism.'” Bill frames his argument as one among big-government conservatives, small-government conservatives and big-government liberals.

What about limited government? The philosophy of limited government is that of the founders, enshrined in the Constitution and the organic laws of the United States. Bill buries the issue in the middle of his column:

Now it’s true that the size of the government and the modern liberal agenda are connected. It’s also true that modern conservatism has to include a strong commitment to limited (though energetic) government and to constitutional (though not necessarily small or weak) government. Still, there’s a difference between a conservatism that is concerned with limited and constitutional government and one that focuses on simply opposing big government.

There Bill leaves it insofar as limited government is concerned. Yet a debate framed in terms of big government versus small government is sterile without the notion of limited government. The proper understanding of limited government provides the judgment on the government programs on offer from the current and prospective administrations.

The gist of the column seems to be Bill’s is opposition to small-government conservatism. He urges conservatives opposing big government public works programs not to oppose them as irreconcilable with the proper ends of constitutional government, but rather to accept them as inevitable.

He therefore counsels conservatives to advocate other big government programs such as national defens in place of public works. “If you think some government action is inevitable,” prudence dictates that you argue in favor of government action that is consistent with the proper ends of constitutional government.

Yet defense is the essential responsibility of the national government. It takes priority over public works programs for that reason. Public works programs in the nature of what the Whigs used to call internal improvements have their own claims, but they are secondary to the national defense and the preservation of constitutional government. To advocate spending on defense as a form of fiscal stimulus or public works confuses the issue.

It is possible to read Bill’s column in two ways. It is possible to read it as the counsel of political prudence. It is also possible to read it as a work of esoteric writing in which the essential truth is concealed in the middle between concessions to popular opinion on the right and the left. The essential truth illuminates and modifies the counsel of prudence in which Bill’s column is otherwise couched.

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