NewsBusters Interview: The Future of Conservatism With Jim Antle
Oftentimes on the Right, there is a tendency to see a tension between being strategic and being principled. Primarily, this is because many of the people who often speak of strategy have evinced a willingness to jettison principle too readily. But is there necessarily a conflict between these two objectives? Not really.
One person who understands this point very well is W. James Antle III, the author of a new book called Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? There have been many books written in recent years pondering the question of what conservatives can do to better succeed in the political marketplace, Jim’s work is one of the few that provides a high-level look at what has worked in the past for the Right and puts it into a broader strategic framework for today’s challenges. I had the pleasure of discussing it with him at length recently. A transcript of our conversation follows.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Joining me today is Jim Antle to talk about his new book, called Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? It’s a very interesting book because it’s quite different from a lot of the other “Whither the Right?” books that have came out over the years, and so we’re happy to talk to Jim about it today. So thanks for joining me, Jim.
ANTLE: Thanks for having me.
SHEFFIELD: All right, well, so tell me what exactly is the—why did you call it Devouring Freedom? What is devouring freedom, the government or what?
ANTLE: Essentially, my argument is that government growth, even when government is doing things that are necessary and good, government by virtue of acting is going to limit individual choices, and I argue in the book that we have reached the point where government growth is reducing our individual choices to the point where it’s counter-productive to us as a society, and then on top of that, the degree of fiscal insolvency that we’re facing in our government as a result of its growth and our refusal to pay for it with direct taxes is also limiting our political options so even, you know, Barack Obama and Barney Frank are fond of the phrase “government being the thing, just another word for the things that we choose to do together.” Well, there are fewer things we can do together because we’ve already committed to doing certain things together, like paying retirees large amounts of money that we don’t have. So I, so the basic idea of the book is to examine what are the long-term political prospects of limited government in a system that is very much biased against doing anything to contain the growth of government?
SHEFFIELD: And it’s this is a natural process, I think you state that, that there’s a natural inclination for government to continue to grow. Now why is that?
ANTLE: I think there are a variety of reasons for that. Number one is the self-interest of the politicians and of the bureaucrats involved in government. There is just much more obvious payout to people who are receiving government benefits and a much more direct constituency for any given government program than the people who are more indirectly bearing the diffused costs. The benefits, as the economists say, are concentrated in the costs diffused, and you, tendency that there, just to take a mundane example, people realize they’re getting loans from the Small Business Administration. They have an incentive to want to keep the Small Business Administration open. You can point to all these ways where other companies are being indirectly harmed by these practices, but they don’t have a strong incentive to shut it down, so I think that that’s another thing, that’s the main thing that keeps government on its tendency to grow.
The second thing is that government lives on and feeds off of crises, and the economist Robert Higgs talked about the Ratchet Effect, and the Ratchet Effect is essentially that whenever you have a crisis, whether it’s an economic crisis, or war, or any other reason for mass mobilization of government, government resources, you see this dramatic government growth, and the government will recede somewhat after the crisis has passed, but it never quite reverts back to its pre-crisis levels, so each one of these types of events has a tendency to grow government over time.
And the third thing is when you’re looking at some of these major, major forces — demographic, historical inertia, just the incentives faced by politicians and bureaucrats — there just aren’t contravening forces of that magnitude that are in existence. So there just isn’t anything that Is pushing the rock in the other direction.
SHEFFIELD: You also talk in the book is about the role of the media. You call them “Big Government’s Publicists.” Can you talk about that?
ANTLE: Absolutely. The media has made it very difficult to limit government because despite the portrayal that journalists have of themselves as being very skeptical, they are very, very eagerly accepting of claims when government is saying that it’s going to do something good, when government is saying that it’s publicly minded, publicly spirited and not self-interested, when government is going to do things on behalf of the little people, protecting them from the big guy. So we have seen a media that is very hostile in its coverage of any kind of spending cuts, even the most minor attempts to roll back the growth of government. We’ve seen a media that does not really effectively cover the amount of collusion that exists between big government and big business to the point where are lot of Americans are unfamiliar with that collusion.
Um, and you know, you see it in specific instances. For example, there is this ongoing debate among conservatives about whether defunding ObamaCare is a wise strategy and whether using a government shutdown would be the correct leverage to force such a defunding on the President. Um, and it would be much easier to envision a strategy like that working in a media environment much different than what we have. It is, It is very difficult to imagine the media that is consumed by the persuadable part of the electorate, not the already-committed part of the electorate but the persuadable part of the electorate, portraying this as anything other than some act of Republican fanaticism, at the very least, obstructionism, and so the media colors the way people look at the growth of government, and it tends to always present the government as this intercessor on behalf of these victim groups and victim classes, and anybody who’s resisting government action is an aggressor against these groups and classes, and is simply self-interested and greedy in a way that government and beneficiaries of government are never presented as being.
SHEFFIELD: Well then, I guess the question would be, though, why you think that the media has that power to influence the un-persuadable in this regard.
ANTLE: Well, I mean the media is sort of a gateway through which people are getting their information, so you have people who are interested enough in all of these things to follow the news stories about them, but not necessarily interested enough to really, particularly, critically examine the claims that they’re seeing on television or that they’re reading in the newspaper. So essentially, the media, by portraying the story in a very simple light and by always making the government the hero in most situations. There are some, you can find some examples where the media becomes somewhat more skeptical of government, but it’s never the social welfare functions of government. Um, by always portraying government action in a favorable light, there’s a large audience of casual media consumers that don’t even get exposed to small government arguments — ever.
SHEFFIELD: And I think it was you — I’ve been reading so many books lately so correct me if I’m wrong — but I think it was you who was saying that the media’s attitude toward government failure is the exact opposite of its attitude toward any other system’s failure. The failures of Enron would not mean more Enron is needed. But it doesn’t work that way for government in the media.
ANTLE: If the government fails in some particularly spectacular way, if it, if it, if it fails to anticipate and repel an attack against the United States; if regulators are found to have been unable to predict, and do anything to correct, an impending financial crisis; if there is a government program that is found to be not delivering on the promises that were made on its behalf when it was created, the answer is always “Give the government entities that failed more money and more power,” and that would not be the reaction you’d get with any other institution in American life. If it fails in, in some way, people would say, “Oh, we need to curtail and contain that,” and I think that’s part of the media’s whole narrative about government is this impartial force for good that exists to regulate every other bad tendency in life. The media has a tendency to not view government as something itself that needs to be regulated and contained.
SHEFFIELD: And I guess besides the media, I guess one of the other persistent problems that we, that the Right faces is that there have been a number of strategic mistakes that have been made over the years. That’s something you talk about in length any number of stories including the 1995 government shutdown. Tell us a little bit about how you see why, what kinds of mistakes have been made in recent years, and uh how, how they could have been done differently.
ANTLE: We’ve had a difficulty in that you know, we have an aggressively pro-big government party, to oversimplify things. And we don’t, despite rhetoric of campaign season, have a consistent limited government party opposing that big government party. So you have the Democrats who have a vested interest in protecting the large federal programs that are the main drivers of the long-term debt, and you have the Republicans, who are sort of, nuanced critics maybe sometimes of these programs but also want to defend them if they think maybe the Democrats are going to cut them, so you know, you look at the Republican position on something like, say, Medicare, is totally muddled based on whatever they feel is politically advantageous just at that moment. So that has been a difficulty, and the Republican Party itself has seemed to be divided between people who have some degree of political savvy but no actual interest in accomplishing or doing anything, and then people who are fairly principled and want to do a lot of things but really don’t have any political skills. And that has been a problem that’s plagued the Republican Party again and again.
And I think that, in terms of having any kind of messaging that counters the Democrats and counters a pro-big government narrative, or even having a strategy for what you would do to begin to unwind some of these things the Republicans are just not there.
SHEFFIELD: Hmm. And your, your point is sadly rather unique in the punditocracy about this strategy versus principle that a lot of times when people do advise conservatives to be more savvy, sometimes people almost invariably think of it as an invitation become more liberal, but it’s not necessarily that.
OK, so I guess one of the other points that you talked about at length was the um, the idea as government as the nanny and the busybody. Is that in your mind one of the better ways to counter the people who want to grow government for its own sake?
ANTLE: I think so, and I think that people have to look at the fact that as the welfare state grows more comprehensive the taxpayers and the government begin to have a stake in the personal choices that you make because your lifestyle choices begin to, at some level, affect the bottom line. And I think the nanny state is a good illustration of that, when you look at things like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and the ban on the large sugary sodas, and when you look at some of the regulations of smoking, and when you look at a lot of other things that affect people’s personal choices that they would not have really thought of as being within the scope of government. While a lot of public health justifications are used for all of these things, if you really scratch beneath the surface it has to do with money. It has to do with the fact that we can say by conducting some study, that we could save X amount of dollars if people’s waistlines were reduced by X number of inches on average. And I think that that gives government a lot of power over people’s lives in ways that I think would have been unfathomable to earlier generations, and I think it directs people’s focus in ways that are just not on getting government money.
People see the benefits of government very clearly, and I think any limited-government movement that’s going to be successful, or that is even going to be remotely competitive with this, is going to have to become better at pointing out the costs.
SHEFFIELD: And, these are not just theoretical points that you’re talking about. I mean, you, you know, you mention Japan specifically is already fining people for, for being overweight. And so I mean, it’s not as if this is some made-up illustration to scare people. It’s already happening.
ANTLE: No, I mean there are real world examples. I mean, obviously, when Tom Coburn was cross-examining Elena Kagan during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and he asked her whether she could see anything in the Constitution that would prevent Congress from passing a law mandating the proper number of fruits and vegetables each day, and she kind of scoffed at the idea but really didn’t come up with a Constitutional restraint on that. Um, you know, that may be theoretical, but there are real world examples of where we’re sort of heading in that direction.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that’s and I think a lot of people on the Left or just the uncommitted Middle, it’s hard for them to see that, to see where these trends are going. They don’t want to believe it. And why is that?
ANTLE: Well, I think a lot of them are committed to a viewpoint that the only way a good outcome can be achieved is if government accomplishes it. For example, there’s the, you know, there have been these fundraisers online for the Caleb House family conducted by both conservative and liberal blogs, and when you read some of the, the, liberal blogs, their presumption is unless there is a large government role in health care, unless we have single-payer or at the very least ObamaCare, everybody would have to have fundraisers conducted for them if they got sick. It would only be charity that could possibly, maybe take care of you if you were, if you were ill.
The fact of the matter is we don’t conduct a telethon every time somebody wants to be fed, we don’t conduct a telethon every time somebody wants to be housed or clothed. They’re basic human needs that are largely taken care of by the market with a, not non-existent but fairly small government role as a safety net and there seems to be a failure of liberal imagination how other basic human needs like health care could be met in that fashion rather than simply by government saying “Hey, I’m going to, to provide this for you.”
SHEFFIELD: One of the points toward the end you talk about is three, three previous attempts to cut government spending or at least reduce the growth of it, three separate ones.
Can you talk about those three separate instances?
ANTLE: Sure, there were actually three times in our relatively recent history when the Republicans have directly assaulted federal spending and actually tried to cut it. There was the sort of the Taft-led do-nothing Congress of ’47 and ’48, when Harry Truman was President right after World War II.. there was the Congress that came in with Ronald Reagan in the early ’80s, and then there was the Gingrich Congress, which sort of peaked at ’95, ’96, ’97. Um, each of these Congresses made an attempt to cut government spending. Two of these three Congresses did so with a hostile President. Only one did so with a President that was actually on their side and leading this charge. Um, and all three of them had their failures and successes.
I point out in Devouring Freedom that it was actually the do-nothing Congress that had the most enduring successes. Um, most of the government programs that it cut were abolished, did not rear their heads again for many decades later, and in comes cases, did not occur again at all: federally subsidized day care there were limitations on food stamps programs, there were limitations on the federal government’s role in the housing market after the war. Um, there was a national health insurance program by Truman that was well to the left of ObamaCare today; that was defeated. And this Congress played a very large role in cutting federal spending from its war-time highs, in excess of 40 percent of the economy, back down to 12 percent for really the only time in the post-New Deal era.
Um, one of the reasons I argue that its successes were enduring, while the Reagan and Gingrich Congresses’ successes were more temporary, is that while all three Congresses were careful in which government programs they tried to target — for example, the do-nothing Congress tried to get rid of Social Security. While they were, they picked their targets carefully the do-nothing Congress tended to abolish, eliminate, prohibit, and both the Gingrich Congress and the Reagan Congress tended to trim existing programs, sometimes by a very large amount, but they tended to leave the programs in place and merely cut outlays.
The problem with the second approach is that eventually, you no longer have power, and spending will be increased again, and in the case of the Gingrich-era Republicans, they did not even have to lose power before they lost their appetite for containing federal spending. So all of the programs that they cut — the most notorious example being farm subsidies as I note in the book — they eventually dramatically ramped up again themselves.
And so, um you know, definitely, a more decisive action in cutting spending is more successful, but there is one reason why I think the do-nothing Congress’s example is not emulated more often: Of the three Congresses I give case studies on, they are the only one that did not get re-elected. In 1948, the immediately lost their majority. the Republicans held their majorities, you know, they held their Senate majority under Reagan until 1986 They held their majority after the ’96 elections really all the way up through, for the most part with a brief interlude, George W. Bush’s presidency, so the political incentives, once again, are in favor of people not cutting government spending even when they have Center-Right majorities.
SHEFFIELD: And I think, you know, a flip-side example of this rapid, all-or-nothing, if you will, approach to leadership would be the Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid Congresses with ObamaCare, that they were willing to put their majority on the line, and they did lose it in the House because of ObamaCare. So they definitely are willing to stick their necks out.
ANTLE: And they were willing though to look at the long-term benefit. The Democratic Party has a self-interest in keeping government growing in passing something like ObamaCare and enlarging the federal role in health care. Republicans have been slower to realize that they too have a self-interest in a limited government because they will never win the spending bidding war with the Democrats, and the bigger the government gets, the less the Republicans are going to have to offer voters. There comes a point where you can no longer talk about tax cuts when you have a government that can’t be funded with, you know, Reagan era tax rates.
SHEFFIELD: You brought up taxes. That was one thing I was going to ask you about. Lately, there’s been some arguments on the Right about people saying that it was a mistake to write people off of the tax rolls, that they don’t feel the lash of the bill with taxes and so now they have nothing to say. You disagree with that proposition.
ANTLE: I do. I think it’s a mistake for a limited government movement to be talking about maximizing the amount of taxes that people pay and taxing people who are living on subsistence-level incomes. The entire political plus side of a limited government argument is people retaining their own earnings, and to the extent that we can say that we’re allowing people across the income spectrum to retain their earnings, that’s really only a positive thing.
Secondly, there’s not a lot of political evidence that the people who’ve been written off the tax rolls as a result of Republican tax cuts have been voting for big government. You know, the people who are getting the child tax credits passed by the Gingrich Congress and expanded by the second President Bush were largely for families with children who were largely voting Republican. We’ve seen senior citizens, despite collecting a lot of benefits from Social Security and Medicare, beginning to skew even more and more Republican. The evidence for the 47 percent argument, as specifically framed by Mitt Romney using that figure of income tax payments, just doesn’t really bear out when you look at it, when you compare it to how people are actually voting.
The other thing would be that there’s also, these are in many cases temporary situations. Conservatives shouldn’t think of everybody’s economic situation as being something that is static or permanent. It’s often fluid, and I think that’s particularly the case when you’re looking at families benefiting from things like child tax credits. That’s something they’re only going to get during a certain cycle of life, and people who are more inclined to be long-term in their planning tend to be people raising the families, and they realize they’re eventually going to have to pay the cost of big government if they’re supporting a lot of big-spending politicians when the kids grow up.
SHEFFIELD: One of the other things I thought was interesting was your discussion of the rise of a protest movement and its more libertarian votes in certain states were found to basically, if you will, have thrown an election to the Democrats. Can you talk about that a little bit and some of the states where you’ve seen that?
ANTLE: Sure. Well, there were several Congressional races, including a pair of Senate races, where the Libertarian Party candidate received a larger share of the vote than the difference between the Democrat and the Republican candidates. There were two big Senate races where I think you could make a pretty good case that the Libertarians saw through it were Montana, where Jon Tester was re-elected, and Indiana, where Joe Donnelly won a surprise race. Now in both cases, the Republican candidates had certain flaws and had made certain mistakes, and you had large blocks of voters who were looking for somebody different to vote for. Now, the argument can always be made that there’s a certain number of people who are going to vote Libertarian regardless of who the Republicans put up or how good of a campaign they run, and I’ll accept that that’s true. There was a non-trivial Libertarian Party vote in Justin Mosh’s district. If you can’t get people to vote for Justin Mosh, then you’re probably not going to have a lot of luck convincing them to vote for other Republicans, but when you’re talking about Libertarian candidates getting six and seven percent of the vote, you are definitely stretching into things that are gettable for Republicans.
So I think there is a little bit of a “liberty swing vote” that we’re starting to see emerge, and that may be, it will be a challenge for more Libertarian-leaning Republicans because I think to the extent that they’re not viewed as loyal Republicans, it will somewhat limit their influence in the party, but it also has a benefit in that when you look at other groups that have kind of been kind of absorbed into the mainstream conservative movement, the Christian Right being a particularly a good example they have not gotten what they wanted within the coalition because politicians assume they have nowhere else to go.
Well, these are voters who have now demonstrated that they’re willing to vote Republican under certain circumstances, but yes, they have somewhere to go, and they’re willing to go there even if that candidate has no realistic chance of winning. So I think by having a liberty swing vote, if it continues to grow at the rate that we’re starting to see you know, I think it can give the harder-core limited-government voters some degree of leverage over the Republican Party, but I think the biggest development has really been competitive Republican primaries. No Republican incumbent in today’s climate can really feel completely safe from a primary challenge. As recently as within the last decade, Republicans as liberal as Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chaffee could win competitive Republican primaries. Now we have people like Mitch McConnell facing non-trivial primary challengers under a set of circumstances where under the old rules, there was nothing Mitch McConnell has done wrong to earn a primary challenge, and while there are downsides, obviously, to subjecting all of your incumbents to primary challenges, the most obvious being it can at times jeopardize your general election prospects, the positive of this is that it creates political incentives for Republicans to not be big government Republicans. For the first time in recent memory, Republicans are feeling pressure, but the pressure they’re feeling is from the Right, and it’s from people who want less government spending and not more.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and that is, it is a unique sort of thing because in the past, for the most part, the extent that conservatives were involved in a law-making discussion, it was purely just as giving off policies and saying “Here’s some good thoughts that we have. Why don’t you do it?” but never saying “Look, if you don’t do this, there’s going to be consequences,” which is how the Left has played it for decades. So it is a good development for the movement. You named some specific organizations that you think have played a helpful role in this. Could you talk about those?
ANTLE: Absolutely. I mean, I think the Club for Growth, while it’s much maligned in Republican circles, has done a fantastic job of really making big-government Republicans feel the heat. I think in recent years, it’s been joined by groups like FreedomWorks, Heritage Action, Young Americans for Liberty, just a large variety of state and local Tea Party organizations, in making Republicans, and holding them accountable to the conservative part of their constituency. It’s always been the case where Republicans had been feeling their pressure from people who don’t really agree with a conservative viewpoint, and the conservatives were seen to be the safe voters who had nowhere else to go. Now, we’ve kind of flipped that script, and the conservative voters are the voters Republican office-holders have to worry about and cater to the most.
SHEFFIELD: OK, so that’s dealing with the supply side of government, if you will. What about the demand side of it? There are a lot of dispirited people out there on the Right who think that there’s just not any hope anymore for creating a constituency for them. What’s your response to that?
ANTLE: I think what we’re seeing right now is a growth of government that is so unsustainable that the failures of big government will, not inevitably but potentially, create constituencies for limited government, and I think that is where both the risk and the opportunity lie, and I think a lot of people look at these, some of the very same trends that these dispirited conservatives look at, also contain seeds of opportunity, and I think the best example of this is really ObamaCare.
It is very, very plausible that ObamaCare will be the end of limited government in this country, both because people — once they begin to receive the subsidies next year are going to become addicted to these subsidies, are going to become dependent on those subsidies, and it is going to just expand another middle class and working class entitlement to the point that Republicans cannot counter it. And the other aspect of ObamaCare is that for every problem with its implementation, liberals will blame the remaining private sector elements of the health-care system, so ObamaCare is not some static thing where the government just has this much of the health-care sector, and it will negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies and everybody who helped pay to get ObamaCare passed. Eventually, the government will, if not countered, will continue to grow inexorably until you have single-payer. So that’s the risk.
The opportunity is that we have a very large government program that is very poorly structured, that is unlikely to work, that is going to impose direct costs on people that are obvious to them and that they will be able to see, whether it’s the loss of their benefits, whether it’s being cut back to part-time employment, whether it’s the loss of their doctor, whether it’s a rise in premiums, whether it’s increased costs and waiting times, emergency room crowding, these are things that people are going to be able to see, that they’re going to be able to feel.
We are also beginning to reach the point where we are at a limit to what the government can feasibly offer the middle class in a deficit-financed way without some sort of middle-class taxation. The more sophisticated liberals are already talking about this; even Paul Krugman has conceded that, eventually, to have the government that he would like to have, you have to have death panels, and you have to have some kind of a value-added tax.
So big government has never been as popular politically once ordinary middle-class people have to begin to bear the cost of it. liberal misgovernment has always—. Every conservative opportunity has been created by liberal misgovernment, at least in the post-New Deal era, and I think that if conservatives are willing to not simply concede on these points, aggressively illustrate every government failure and do as much as they can to raise public awareness and public understanding, and not simply allow the narrative to prevail: ObamaCare isn’t working because a conservative talk show host said mean things about it or because we have an insurance company over there and it’s staffed by mean people. If they actually can connect some of these real problems with this architecture of the law itself, I think that’s a real opportunity.
SHEFFIELD: One of the other parts of ObamaCare that doesn’t get a lot of attention but really should is the mandates about abortion and contraception. How widely do you think people know about this issue?
ANTLE: Well, it was interesting because I thought in particular with the contraception mandate, there was a significant backlash to that mandate when it was first reported, and the reason I think that that’s particularly interesting is that, unlike abortion, where a large number of Americans share moral and religious qualms about abortion, even many and perhaps most, depending on the surveys that you read, American Catholics don’t share their church’s qualms about contraception. Yet there was nevertheless a very hostile reaction to the idea that the federal government was going to tell Catholic entities that they had to pay for, and cover, and subsidize contraception. I think it’s another area where having a welfare state so comprehensive will involve government making decisions and choices that have traditionally always been private and personal decisions and will intrude in areas of religious freedom just like it’s going to intrude in the areas of people’s personal lifestyle choices.
SHEFFIELD: I agree, and I guess the last question would be you talked toward the end about trying to get people to understand that things are fallible in the private sector. They understand that there, but they don’t understand that with government. How do you convince people that government can fail?
ANTLE: I mean, it seems like it ought to be very intuitive because we see government fail every day, and even some private failures like Solyndra are, in effect, government failures but we have accepted this notion that government is somehow this separate, a sort of like a quasi-religious being that exists separately from everything else that’s happening in human society, and if we petition it, it will intervene on our behalf and will solve a variety of our problems. I think we have to understand that government, just like anything, just like business, just like a religious organization, just like any private entity, is just a bunch of people. The difference between government and some of those other entities is a government is driven by the use of force. Situations that cannot be effectively dealt with through force and through violence probably will not be effectively dealt with through government.
SHEFFIELD: Well, thanks for joining me, Jim Antle, the author of Devouring Freedom. It’s a very good book, and I encourage everyone to check it out.