Jeff Jacoby

To many liberals, Rick Perry's audacious pledge to make Washington, DC, as "inconsequential in your life as I can" is tantamount to a pledge to bring back the Dark Ages.

Commenting on Twitter as the Texas governor announced his presidential candidacy last weekend, longtime Washington journalist Howard Kurtz wondered: "Perry wants to make DC 'inconsequential in your life.' Does that include Medicare, Soc Sec, vets' programs, air safety, FDA?" Former Bobby Kennedy aide Jeff Greenfield, calling Perry's words "nothing short of astonishing," ran through a litany of Washington's contributions to American life -- from railroads, interstate highways, and the Hoover dam to land-grant colleges, civil rights, and subsidized mortgages -- and marveled at the depth of the right's "disdain for all things Washington."

But it isn't highways or veterans' programs or minority voting rights that conservatives find so objectionable about Washington. When Perry speaks of making the nation's capital "inconsequential," he isn't proposing to dismantle the Hoover Dam. Hard as it may be for liberals to accept, the Republican base isn't motivated by blind loathing of the federal government, or by a nihilistic urge to wipe out the good that Washington has accomplished.

What conservatives believe, rather, is what America's Founders believed: that that government is best which governs least, and that human freedom and dignity are likeliest to thrive not when power is centralized and remote, but when it is diffuse, local, and modest.

"It is not by the consolidation or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected," wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1821. In part that is because central planners and regulators rarely know enough to be sure of the impact their decisions will have on the innumerable individuals, communities, and enterprises affected by them "Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap," Jefferson dryly remarked, "we should soon want bread." The Beltway blunders of our own era -- from the subprime mortgage meltdown to Cash-for-Clunkers to minimum-wage laws that drive up unemployment -- would not have surprised him.


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.