Time for a Republican Reformation

Jonah Goldberg

12/14/2005 12:05:00 AM - 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.

But abdication of constitutional responsibilities is the order of the day. State attorneys general, led by New York's Elliot Spitzer, form unconstitutional compacts between the states without the required consent of Congress. Congress passes laws without a moment's concern about their constitutionality, on the novel but deeply held popular conviction that if the Supreme Court doesn't object, it must be OK. Once upon a time, whole bills were thrown out because some senator or congressmen objected that the proposed legislation, however well-intentioned, simply exceeded constitutional authority. Today we legislate by curveball, write whatever laws we like in the hope that the squinty-eyed umpires of the court don't call a strike.

Presidents have been just as bad, including George W. Bush. He campaigned against the proposed McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform" in the 2000 election. At the time Bush argued, rightly, that the legislation violated numerous constitutional principles. When the bill wound up his desk, however, in a more egregious form than the earlier versions, Bush signed it. If his erstwhile "serious constitutional concerns" had been justified, the president explained, then, heck, "the courts will resolve these legitimate legal questions." But when the law went before the Supreme Court, Bush's Justice Department defended it and the justices in turn upheld it, out of deference to the "government." It's all so tawdry.

There's a great deal more worth reading in DeMuth's blessedly nonpartisan primer on unlimited government, including the observation that today's heated partisanship probably has a lot to do with the fact that the government tries to do everything. This creates the sense that all that's wrong in the country is due to the other side's obstruction, and it makes both sides feel like the stakes in every election are enormous - which, increasingly, is true.

But the importance of DeMuth's message for conservatives cannot be overlooked. In recent years AEI has garnered the reputation as the president's Brain Trust. In conservative circles these days, that's not an unmitigated compliment. Too many in the GOP have felt the rush that comes with giving out other people's money, and as a result the party has become "worldly," as Martin Luther might put it, selling favors like indulgences of yore. We have confused "low taxes" - which we all like - with limited government, which we don't have. We expect Democrats to want the government to do everything, but at least they have the consistency to raise taxes in order to pay for it. Republicans lack similar convictions. Which is why they need to be born again.