Commentary

Yes, It Can!—Maybe

Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?
By James Antle, III
Regnery, hardcover; $30, 256 pages

As a workaday wonk who writes a weekly column, every day I’m condemned to force-feed myself great gobs of political news—a practice that, as social psych experiments have shown, raises stress-hormone levels and harshes one’s mellow. Yet somehow James Antle, the right’s sharpest young(ish) political journalist, always seems to unearth depressing details I otherwise would have missed. (Thanks, Jim.)

A better title might have been “Big Government for Me, But Not for Thee” or “We the People Ruin Everything.””

In his brisk and incisive if intermittently dispiriting new book, Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?,Antle, a senior editor of The American Spectator and editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation, turns his sights on recent struggles to tame Leviathan.

The answer to the subtitle’s question is supposed to be “yes,” because who wants to hear otherwise? But Antle’s too honest a narrator to shine us on: “I intend to show how we got here and offer some suggestions as to how to get out. It won’t be easy. Sometimes it will seem impossible.” As the book proceeds, periodic notes of plucky optimism start giving way to grim exhortation: “We cannot afford to fail. We must fight.” Antle repeatedly urges his readers not to despair, but sometimes he makes that seem damn near impossible.

It’s not his fault: A sober look at the mess we’re in can only make you rue sobriety. In his book, even the straight, descriptive lines—“during the 2012 Republican primaries, the leading conservative alternative to Mitt Romney was Rick Santorum…”—could drive you to drink.

As a conservative, Antle’s sympathies lie with the Republican Party—but only slightly more than, say, Garry Wills’ sympathies lie with the Roman Catholic Church. Thankfully, Antle doesn’t have much use for Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” He’s spent his career violating it relentlessly.

In the third chapter, titled “The Second Big-Government Party,” he lingers over a petulant and revealing 2011 primary debate exchange between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, as the candidates tried to settle, once and for all, who was to blame for Obamacare:

Romney: “Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.”

Gingrich: “That’s not true. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.”

Heritage! You! Heritage! You! Antle writes: “so there you had two leading candidates to replace Obama highlighting their past support for the individual mandate and arguing over who thought of it first—all while repeatedly implicating the nation’s most influential conservative think tank.”

How can you not break the 11th Commandment, Antle seems to ask, when the GOP and the conservative intelligentsia have served the cause of limited government so poorly?

DEVOURING FREEDOM’S main focus is on federal spending, so Antle devotes most of his attention to Congress, the branch that holds the power of the purse. He looks at three reform-oriented Republican Congresses in the post-WWII era: the 80th (1947–1949), the 97th from Reagan’s first term, and Newt Gingrich’s 104th (1995–1997).

The first of the three turns out to be the most interesting: “Led by Senator Robert Taft, the Rand Paul of his day,” Antle writes, the 80th Congress “rolled back the militarization of the U.S. economy and prevented the creation of a full-blown European-style welfare state.”

Despite Truman’s campaign-trail epithets, the 80th wasn’t a “Do-Nothing Congress” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It did plenty, restructuring the military establishment with the National Security Act of 1947, passing the union-restricting Taft-Hartley Act, and sending the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidential terms, out for ratification.

In Antle’s account, though, the so-called Do-Nothing Congress’ singular achievement was radically reducing appropriations. In 1944, a year before the end of WWII, federal spending had climbed to over 43 percent of GDP; but by 1948, “Taft’s troops pared it down to 11.3 percent.”

And then, of course, they lost. “Of the three reforming Congresses we’ve looked at,” Antle writes, “the one that was least successful at getting itself re-elected scored the most enduring victories against big government.” Which is why “success must also be measured by something more ambitious than prevailing at the ballot box.”

Still, it’s hard to rally a congressional majority behind causes involving noble self-sacrifice. Lawmakers are most likely to do the right thing when the tide of public opinion forces them along. So is there political support for major spending cuts today?

It’s there for the taking, argue some conservatives and libertarians: The American people want smaller government, and their failure to get it is largely the fault of the political class. In a chapter titled, “The Government We Don’t Deserve,” Antle flirts with that narrative, teasing out hopeful trends in the polling data.

In survey after survey, he points out, Americans report that they’d “rather get by with fewer government services than pay more in taxes.” By overwhelming margins, they identify “big government” as “the biggest threat to the country,” rather than “big business” and “big labor”—64 percent to 26 and 8 percent, respectively, in the most recent polls. (Interestingly, by four percentage points, even Democrats say big government is a bigger threat than big business.) Exit polls in the November 2012 presidential election had 51 percent of voters saying that government was doing too many things better left to business and individuals; only 43 percent thought that government needed to do more to solve problems. “When asked directly,” Antle notes, “the American people don’t want the federal government to get bigger.”

I’m skeptical, and as you read on, you realize that, despite the chapter title, so is Antle. The problem with these generic poll questions, as he recognizes, is that when it comes to specifics, Americans don’t want to cut much at all.

A Pew survey released on the eve of the sequester asked Americans about their willingness to wield the budgetary axe, and found that “for 18 of 19 programs tested, majorities want either to increase spending or maintain it at current levels.” The Democrats surveyed couldn’t muster a plurality for cuts in even one of those 19 programs, and, despite their tough talk on spending, Republicans were almost as incontinent: Only cuts to foreign aid and unemployment assistance showed majority support from GOP respondents.

“Many voters don’t understand where federal spending is going,” Antle explains. Most think foreign aid makes up 10 percent of the federal budget (closer to 1 percent) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 5 percent (around 0.1 percent).

The People, in their infinite wisdom, may think Big Bird’s a major cause of big government, but they overwhelmingly oppose cuts to Medicare, the biggest driver of federal debt. As most voters see it, they’ve “paid in” and deserve to collect. But according to recent calculations by the Urban Institute, a married couple with typical lifetime earnings retiring today can expect to collect in benefits roughly quadruple what they’ve provided via payroll taxes.

Antle lets Keating Holland, CNN’s polling director, sum up the dilemma: “Cutting unpopular programs would probably not cut the deficit very much, and cutting the deficit would probably require cuts in programs Americans like.” True enough, which is why, pacethe chapter title, we seem to be getting the government we (collectively) deserve. A better title might have been “Big Government for Me, But Not for Thee” or “We the People Ruin Everything.”

Still, as Antle suggests, there are reasons to be optimistic, if only because things are getting worse. It’s a case of “Big Government vs. Math,” he says, and as the bill for our past profligacy comes due, voters who “don’t know where federal spending is going” are going to find out the hard way. It will become increasingly apparent that foreign aid, public television, and bridges to nowhere aren’t the cause of our looming fiscal apocalypse. It’s Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and what’s loosely called “national defense” that make up nearly two-thirds of the federal budget.

Our bloated military budget—nearly half what the rest of the world spends combined—is already coming under pressure, and as Antle has observed elsewhere, “we will not be able to fight the neoconservatives’ wars with the supply-siders’ tax rates.” Nor will it be easy to maintain a “pay as you go” welfare state when it becomes obvious to Millennials that they’ll never get back what they have paid in.

The crisis of the welfare-warfare state will scramble existing political coalitions, leading to new opportunities for reform. “May you live in interesting times,” goes the (possibly apocryphal) Chinese curse. We’re about to live through some interesting times politically, and this could end up being a blessing instead of a curse.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.