Jonah Goldberg

American conservatism is overdue for a reformation. And we may just have the equivalent of our 95 theses to nail to the church door, or in this case the think tank door.

Our would-be Martin Luther is Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who would be a long overdue candidate for People magazine's "Smartest Man Alive" cover if they did that sort of thing. In the January-February issue of the American Enterprise, DeMuth asks, "What ever happened to small government?" (Full disclosure: I once worked at AEI, and was once the American Enterprise's media critic. Also, I sometimes wear sweat socks two days in a row.)

In fairness this is not a new question on the right. Many of us have been asking it with the same frequency and urgency of a man very late for work who asks, "Where did I put my car keys?" But several things are notable about DeMuth's essay.

First, it offers a brilliant argument that large government itself is unconstitutional. Jefferson believed that "no man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session," so he wisely insisted that the capital be built in malarial swampland. Consequently, the seat of the government remained empty for nearly half the year. Today, thanks in part to the unintended consequences of air-conditioning, we have permanent government of career politicians, a thing the founders never intended and which sees no natural boundary to its authority.

One thing the founders sought to limit was the power of taxation, which, they understood, was the most powerful and most politically divisive tool at government's disposal, short of war. That's why the Constitution insists that revenue increases originate in the House of Representatives so as to ensure the most political legitimacy possible. (A point DeMuth doesn't mention is that the founders intended the House to be vastly more representative, numerically speaking, than it is today. George Washington spoke up only once at the Constitutional Convention - to insist that size of Congressional districts be dropped from 40,000 to 30,000, to make them more representative.)

Today, some taxation involves no representation at all. Agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission simply decide how much money they need and then tax to get it. For example, the FCC taxes long distance phone calls and spends the money on library and school computers, spreading the Internet to rural communities, and other nice things. Nice is nice, but nice doesn't trump constitutional responsibilities.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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