Big Government? No. Big Exaggerations? Yes.
Now that Rick Santorum has basically tied Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucus, the knives are really out for Rick. On the one hand, he will undoubtedly experience a surge in the polls and in fundraising. On the other hand, as every conservative who has ascended in the polls has before, he will face a firestorm of criticism from both left and right. I discussed this in my post yesterday, and now things have only gone into overdrive. As someone who reads secular conservative blogs, there is a lot of concern that Santorum is some kind of “big government” conservative. I think this is absurd, as does a pretty famous conservative figure not known for particularly liking big government types: Rush Limbaugh. Here’s what he had to say about the big government charge on his program today:
Now there’s a mantra — there’s mantra out there — and it’s even now spread to CBS News: “Will Santorum’s big government conservatism resonate?” It’s everywhere, folks. “Santorum’s big government conservatism.” Have you ever heard “big government conservatism” associated with Rick Santorum before today? Have you? Have you? All right, very rarely. Some of you might. In Pennsylvania in some of his campaigns it might have been said, but nationally most people are hearing this for the first time after he wins the Hawkeye Cauci. Now, it started (at least I first saw it) in conservative media and then The Cato Institute, which is Libertarian. Now CBS News has it. So let’s talk about this for a second.
I remember in the early days of this program, one of the things that I said when I was actually in the process of introducing myself to the audience, explaining my views and so forth. I remember saying… I’m gonna have to paraphrase myself; I don’t have the exact quote in front of me ’cause I’m going back to 1988 or ’89 now, maybe 1990. But I said, “In certain things, conservatives actually do like a big government. For example, conservatives do want an activist government defending what’s right and attacking what’s wrong.” Big government may not be the term, but, for example: Conservatives do think that it’s the role of government to protect the sanctity of life, as does Rick Santorum. If government doesn’t, who else will? And it stems from our founding documents: Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence.
Clearly the government has a role here in defending life. If they don’t, who will? Also, the government should be used effectively to fight crime. Conservatives are all for, for example, the government fighting illegal immigration. Now, is that big government or is that responsible government? Big government is being misused here when applied to Santorum. Big government as it’s used today means welfare state, and Santorum does not believe in a welfare state. So the left is playing a rhetorical game here, folks, and I want to alert you to this. “Big government” has a specific meaning today, and it means welfare state. It means redistribution. It means high taxes. It means command-and-control of the economy. And that’s not what Santorum believes. So the left knows that “big government” is a negative. It is a harmful term to attach to somebody, and that’s why they’re trying to attach it to Santorum. But Rick Santorum does not believe in the big government of Barack Obama. It’s totally different thing for him.
There’s much more at the link.
Mark Levin, another (in)famous right-wing host, has also given his seal of approval for Santorum. Now I know that Levin and Limbaugh are not everyone’s cup of tea, but the point I’m trying to make is that the notion that Santorum is a big government guy has been knocked down by a couple of talk show hosts who aren’t prone to generosity towards less than pure conservatives.
More importantly, Rush hit it on the nose with this commentary, although I think he’s being a bit blind to how conservatives are trying to pin this label to Santorum as well. Too often conservatism is dumbed down to being simply anti-government. Certainly conservatives do not want an activist government, but that does not correlate to being anti-government. Conservative distrust of government intervention has less to do with opposition to government in and of itself than fear that governmental attempts to intervene often have unforeseen consequences. A fundamental tenet of conservatism going back to the days of Burke, Hamilton, and Madison is that though the public (or their representatives) often wills the good, the results of their policies tend to be deleterious. So we are distrustful of social engineering. This does not mean that we oppose basic operations of governance, including the protection of human life. In fact, one of the arguments on behalf of limited government is that when the government takes on too many functions, it drops the ball on those matters that are most important.
I also think that underlying this internal conservative strife is a dichotomy between those on the right who either revere Ayn Rand or who at least take her works seriously, and those of us who despise Rand. The Randians are not just libertarian in outlook, but sometimes even border on libertinism. In a sense the Randians just don’t understand where the anti-Randians are coming for. To them, society is little more than a collection of atomized individuals, and talk about community and natural rights sounds to them like the talk of collectivists. They don’t grasp, as conservatives like Santorum and Jim DeMint do, that fiscal conservatism is impossible without social conservatism, and without a society undergirded with strong family values, there really can be no economic freedom. In fact Randian morality itself leads to very un-Randian economic developments. As the local platoons – those small community networks that tie individuals together – are undermined, that leaves individuals at the mercy of the state. When more and more individuals develop outside of traditional families, and when hyper-individualism takes root in every corner of society, then people are left with no one but the state to turn to for charity and guidance. The end result of moral rot is more statism.
This election contest is turning out not just to be a contest between conservatism and progressivism, but an internal conservative fight between the libertarian element and traditional conservatives.