Public polling consistently finds Americans identifying themselves—and the nation—as center-right. Not surprisingly, then, American conservatives have scored major victories over the last 30 years. Taxes have been cut, and welfare transformed. Robust defense and an assertive foreign policy won the Cold War.
But despite these advances, the overall trajectory of national policy has bent toward greater dependency on government. The proportion of our population dependent on government for basics such as food and shelter continues to grow. More and more have been conditioned to rely increasingly on federal assistance in areas ranging from health care and retirement security to education.
Meanwhile, the share of Americans paying income taxes declines. Government has become an engine of redistribution, creating a growing constituency of “takers” supported by a shrinking population of “givers.” As a result, America’s ethic of self-reliance—and the institutions of civil society designed to provide neighborly care to the needy—face the gravest threat posed in our nation’s history.
How has the nation managed to slip further away from the core values of our founding, despite conservative victories? Part of the problem is a fudging of the distinction between partisan battles and ideological disagreements. The former pit Republicans against Democrats in ways to score political points. The latter feature conservatives squaring off against liberals in a competition to see who offers the most appealing policy solutions.
As these lines have blurred, the idea of an “activist think tank” has been gradually devalued. New think tanks pop up only to produce thinly cloaked partisan propaganda. Instead of seeking creative solutions to public policy questions and then marketing these efforts aggressively, these groups are little more than messaging organizations for entrenched interests intent on the perpetual expansion of federal government.
Bereft of an ideological compass, much of official Washington has come to equate Big Government with Good Government. Whatever the problem, Washington views it as a “nail” demanding a legislative or regulatory “hammer.”
Federal intrusiveness in the daily lives of Americans has grown exponentially, yet bureaucrats hanker for even more power. As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last May, when asked about the Administration’s Livable Communities Initiative, “About everything we do around here is government intrusion in people's lives. So have at it.”