Saturday, November 12, 2005

Waxing Austere?

FDR quoted Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay in 1936 saying, “Reform if you would preserve.” It is worth looking at Lord Macaulay’s quote fuller:

Let them wait, if this strange and fearful infatuation be indeed upon them, that they should not see with their eyes, or hear with their ears, or understand with their heart. But let us know our interest and our duty better. Turn where we may, within, around, the voice of great events is proclaiming to us: Reform, that you may preserve. Now, therefore, while everything at home and abroad forebodes ruin to those who persist in a hopeless struggle against the spirit of the age; now, while the crash of the proudest throne of the continent is still resounding in our ears; now, while the roof of a British palace affords an ignominious shelter to the exiled heir of forty kings; now, while we see on every side ancient institutions subverted, and great societies dissolved; now, while the heart of England is still sound; now, while old feelings and old associations retain a power and a charm which may too soon pass away; now, in this your accepted time, now, in this your day of salvation, take counsel, not of prejudice, not of party spirit, not of the ignominious pride of a fatal consistency, but of history, of reason, of the ages which are past, of the signs of this most portentuous (sic) time.

Pronounce in a manner worthy of the expectation with which this great debate has been anticipated, and of the long remembrance which it will leave behind. Renew the youth of the State. Save property, divided against itself. Save the multitude, endangered by its own ungovernable passions. Save the aristocracy, endangered by its own unpopular power. Save the greatest, and fairest, and most highly civilized community that ever existed, from calamities which may in a few days sweep away all the rich heritage of so many ages of wisdom and glory. The danger is terrible. The time is short. If this bill should be rejected, I pray to God that none of those who concur in rejecting it may ever remember their votes with unavailing remorse, amid the wreck of laws, the confusion of ranks, the spoliation of property, and the dissolution of social order.

Lord Macaulay was speaking about representational reform but his words could well apply to the need for reform today in the United States. With the populace increasingly unhappy with their Representatives and Senators, Democrat and Republican alike it is time to take stock of what the nation needs and how our national leaders are going to address those needs. I do not subscribe to the idea that government should care for its citizens cradle to coffin, when giants dance mice get squished; sometimes the greatest need a citizen has is to be left unmeddled with. I hardly expect the government to stop meddling though, and truth be told there are a great many people who wish to be enfolded to the great flabby bosom of state socialism. How then can we stem the encroachment, roll it back, and reinvigorate the vitality of our people?

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam unroll a “starting place” to do just that in a column in the Weekly Standard. They argue that small government conservatives have relinquished the reins of government behemoths because of distaste for the system.

Many honest small government conservatives aren't interested in overseeing programs that they would prefer to see slashed or abolished, so their place has been filled by an assortment of cynical operators, for whom the only guiding principle is to keep Republicans (and themselves) fat, happy, and securely in power.

This echoes Peggy Noonan’s unhappy column a few weeks back:

That they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

Douthat and Salam outline three options: the first continuing the ruinous course that has yielded terrible pork filled appropriations bills, the second a return to fiscal austerity unpopular with the majority of voters (that is until “the looming entitlement crisis to convince Americans of the wisdom of repealing the New Deal”), or

“The third possibility--and the best, both for the party and the country as a whole--would be to take the "big-government conservatism" vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability.”
The words “big-government conservative” makes the leftover pizza I had for lunch congeal unhappily in my stomach.

They go on to assure us:

This wouldn't mean an abandonment of small-government objectives, but it would mean recognizing that these objectives--individual initiative, social mobility, economic freedom--seem to be slipping away from many less-well-off Americans, and that serving the interests of these voters means talking about economic insecurity as well as about self-reliance. It would mean recognizing that you can't have an "ownership society" in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own. It would mean matching the culture war rhetoric of family values with an economic policy that places the two-parent family--the institution best capable of providing cultural stability and economic security--at the heart of the GOP agenda.

OK. I will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but (the all important but) will abandoning the perfect even yield us the good? How can embracing big government conservatism not be abandoning small government objectives? Our current leaders have compromised and compromised into this fiscal mess, to reform will mean making unpopular decisions that need to be gutted through. You take away a child’s candy no matter how they yell so that they eat the healthy dinner that is placed before them. We ought to have no illusions: any big government program put in place can and will get derailed or abused beyond its initial purpose, Social Security anyone? A fine idea with an admirable purpose, that has been taken down a road FDR did not envision.

I think that we will indeed see programs along the lines sketched in this article; I even like some of them. I think that Americans need to be shocked out of their comfort zones, though for them to elect the aggressive reformers needed to craft the plans we need. It will give firm ground to those leaders who will have to battle complacency and an attitude of entrenched entitlement and the treacherous rocks of socialism. I guess I am not ready to give up on that austerity yet.

Tracked with Basil, Don Surber, Political Teen and Stop the ACLU.

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