Bill Kristol, the often insightful, ever-influential editor of The Weekly Standard, used his column in The New York Times this week to offer some advice to conservatives who advocate small government: Cut it out.
The essence of Kristol's argument is that small government is not popular, therefore advocating it is not a smart strategy for a political faction seeking power in a representative government.
To illustrate his point, Kristol picked the inapt example of President Bush's Medicare prescription drug entitlement, noting that Republicans failed politically when they attempted to roll back Medicare and succeeded when they worked to expand it.
"Indeed, the 'Republican Revolution' of 1995 imploded primarily because of the Republican Congress' one major small-government-type initiative -- the attempt to 'cut' (i.e., restrain the growth of) Medicare," wrote Kristol. "George W. Bush seemed to learn the lesson. Prior to his re-election, he proposed and signed into law popular (and, it turned out, successful) legislation, opposed by small-government conservatives, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
"So talk of small government may be music to conservative ears, but it's not to the public as a whole," concluded Kristol. He might as well have said: So talk of virtue may be music to a philosopher's ears, but the public prefers vice.
I am not trying to make an abstract point of principle here, but a practical one. Just as unchecked vice in individuals ultimately leads to the breakdown of those who indulge in it -- as Americans can learn just from looking around their neighborhoods -- unchecked vice in government ultimately leads to the breakdown of nations.
America's addiction to federal entitlement programs is a vice. Unchecked, it will break our nation.
Kristol doesn't see it that way. "I can't help but admire some of my fellow conservatives' loyalty to the small government cause," he wrote in the Times. "It reminds me of the nobility of Tennyson's Light Brigade, as it charges into battle: 'Theirs but to do and die.' Maybe it would be better, though, first to reason why."
OK, let's reason why prudence counsels fighting for smaller government -- starting with Kristol's own example, the Medicare prescription drug entitlement enacted by President Bush.
In January, then-Comptroller General David Walker submitted testimony to the Senate on America's "Long-Term Fiscal Outlook." It was subtitled: "Action Is Needed to Avoid the Possibility of a Serious Economic Disruption in the Future."