The most confusing political phenomenon of recent times is "big-government conservatism." The lines on every graph show the same pattern: Government -- whether measured by spending, the deficit, the number of employees, or earmarked appropriations -- expanded through the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush Senior administrations; declined steadily under Clinton; then shot rapidly northward after Republicans took control of the White House in 2001.
For conservatives, the story of big-government conservatism has become a chapter in their own self-satisfied mythology. It is the story of moral corruption, of the dreams of libertarian paradise hijacked by the grasping Washington interest groups. "We were sent here to change Washington," the conservatives say, "but Washington changed us." They succumbed to the irresistible temptation to spend, but through confession and self-flagellation they will restore the conservative soul. This theology even has a name -- "public-choice theory" -- and a seminary at George Mason University.
The fact that the right would never have been able to hold and retain power had it actually shrunk entitlements or admitted its intent to privatize Social Security before the 2004 election is merely an inconvenient detail in an otherwise compelling fable. But for liberals, big-government conservatism creates a real paradox: It’s easy to say, "Gotcha!" -- the right promised small government and delivered big bureaucracy instead -- but what does it mean to say that? That we are the true small-government conservatives? That reducing the size of government is an end in itself? If liberals retake power, does it become our goal to shrink government?
In fact, big-government conservatism has nothing in common with the willingness to use public means for public good that characterizes liberalism. Big government conservatives grew government because they needed it to blur the lines between public and private, in order to make government an instrument of private and political power. Almost 50 years ago, in The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith described a society "out of balance," in which private spending and private wants were not matched by public investment. But for Galbraith, the distinction was clear: Public is government; private is, well, private.
But what would Galbraith make of today’s student-loan system? Government enables private banks to make loans, structures the market, and guarantees profits. It is considered half-private, half-public. Yet it is horribly complex, rife with corruption, and $6 billion a year that could help students afford college instead fattens the coffers of private lenders, enriching people like Albert Lord, the CEO of Sallie Mae. An entirely public system, in which government made loans directly to students, would be cheaper and less complex. That might be "bigger government," but it would be more efficient and would better serve the public purpose. Alternately, we could have a fully private system, in which banks actually compete and take risks, perhaps by bidding for the right to make loans.
Instead, we have the worst of both worlds: government that is bigger than it needs to be because it helps generate private profits. The same could be said of the Medicare Advantage program, which supposedly introduces "private-sector competition" to Medicare, but instead spends $1,000 more per person than is necessary because it subsidizes private-sector profits.
Big-government conservatism is also about blurring lines for reasons of power. In recent hearings on the U.S. attorney firings, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse generated a chart showing the lines of interaction between the Bush White House and the Justice Department -- a tortured web involving dozens of people. The same chart for the Clinton White House involved just three lines. Whitehouse’s chart sure looks like a big bureaucracy. But what it really says is that anyone in the Bush White House can call almost any Justice Department lawyer and ask about pending cases.
A complex bureaucracy should serve to tame and moderate power. But the Whitehouse chart, the student-loan system, the Medicare Advantage program, and their ilk do the opposite: They use complexity to concentrate private or political power, to hide power, or to exploit public power for private gain.
The answer to big-government conservatism, then, is neither a promise to shrink government nor expand it, but a promise that public institutions will serve the public. The resulting government may claim a higher percentage of the gross domestic product, but it will feel smaller and more efficient -- and can eventually restore the sense of balance between public and private that is as absent today as it was in Galbraith’s time.