Michael Gerson Calls on Republicans to Stick with Big Government

Last week Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson took one of his periodic potshots at libertarianism. Tom Palmer and I responded in the Post’s letters column. Since the published letter was shortened for space, here’s a more complete version:

Michael Gerson, who wrote the words that created the George W. Bush administration and thus led to the sweeping Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, once again warns Republicans to stick to big-government conservatism and avoid the siren song of small-government libertarianism.

This time he describes libertarianism as “a scandal” because it “involves not only a retreat from Obamaism but a retreat from the most basic social commitments to the weak, the elderly and the disadvantaged, along with a withdrawal from American global commitments.” That is, he charges libertarians with a “retreat” from a welfare-state philosophy that is at odds with the American tradition and with basic principles of limited government. Moreover, he charges us with wanting to change a set of policies that have not served the weak, the elderly and the disadvantaged well, because they have encouraged and promoted weakness and long-term dependence. Libertarians warn that to continue down the current road leads to the Greek crisis, in which the utter cruelty of making promises that can’t be kept is revealed.  The state will soon have to retreat from the unsustainable commitments and promises that politicians and pundits are blithely making now. 

Gerson also charges libertarianism with “rigorous ideological coldness.” He considers reason, arithmetic, and a realistic assessment of what those “commitments” really mean to be “cold.”  That tells more about him than about libertarianism. 

As for the “global commitments” that Gerson writes such beautiful words about, the real scandal here is that our soldiers have been put in harm’s way all over the world, fighting other people’s battles and deploying deadly force that inevitably kills the innocent, the “collateral damage” that advocates of “global commitments” so conveniently forget. And more broadly, we are all at risk when U.S. foreign policy involves America in foreign quarrels and encourages hatred and terrorism in response to our foreign interventionism.

Gerson’s warfare-welfare state philosophy has given America two wars, serious threats from terrorism, and a $106 trillion unfunded liability. It might be kinder and gentler to try the Founders’ vision, the libertarian vision, of a limited state that provides a framework in which we can all enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As we noted in the original draft, Gerson was the intellectual architect of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which came to be better known as “big-government conservatism” – from Bush’s 1999 Indianapolis speech that Ed Crane criticized in the New York Times as “Clintonesque” (worse, he meant Hillary) to his unReaganesque inaugural address to his speeches advancing such triumphs as No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug program, subsidies to religious groups, the Iraq War, the Bush doctrine, and massive increases in foreign aid. Thus he can also be seen as an architect of the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, in which the ideas and policies that he helped to shape were rejected. Now he warns Republicans that they shouldn’t fall for small-government ideas just because their big-government agenda led to a Democratic White House and Congress.

Here’s a response to a previous Gerson attack on libertarianism.