Monday, November 12, 2007

Making the Least of a Good Situation

It seems to be a time for conservative soul searching. Last Wednesday OpinionJournal - Federation reprinted an essay by William Voegeli in the Fall 2007 Claremont Review of Books, where he describes the accomplishments (or the lack therof) of US conservatives since the Reagan Revolution. My title comes from this line from late in the essay: "Between 1981 and 2006, conservatives made the least of a good situation. If the more difficult years ahead are not going to be a debacle, conservatives need to wrestle with some important strategic questions." But let's let Mr. Voegeli first set the context.
The Trouble With Limited Government
Why even Reagan couldn't stop spending from skyrocketing--and what to do about it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

A quarter century ago president Ronald Reagan declared in his first inaugural address: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. . . . It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people." In 1981, the year of that speech, the federal government spent $678 billion; in 2006, it spent $2,655 billion. Adjust that 292% increase for inflation, and the federal government is still spending 84% more than it did when Reagan became president--in a country whose population has grown by only 30%.

To put the point another way, if per capita spending after 1980 had grown at the rate of inflation, federal outlays would have been $1,883 billion in 2006 instead of $2,655 billion. The 41% increase from 1981 to 2006 is considerably lower than the 94% increase in real per capita spending in the previous 25 years, from 1956 to 1981. In the past two decades, the federal establishment grew steadily, rather than dramatically. Nonetheless, Reagan's pledge to curb the government's size and influence has hardly been fulfilled. Inflation-adjusted federal spending increased in every year but two over the past 26 years.

Military spending is a minor factor in the overall growth of government. It was 23.2% of federal spending and 5.2% of gross domestic product in 1981. Those percentages peaked in 1987 at 28.1% and 6.1%, respectively. Defense spending fell steadily thereafter, and was just over 16% of the federal budget and 3% of GDP from 1999 through 2001. Since September 11, defense spending has climbed to 20% of the federal budget and 4% of GDP. Despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both figures are lower than they were at any point during Jimmy Carter's presidency.

The engine driving the growth of government has been "human resources"--the Office of Management and Budget's category that includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with other programs for health, education, veterans and income security. Spending on human resources in 1981 was $362 billion, slightly more than half (53.4%) of all federal outlays. That proportion declined to slightly less than half (49.7%) by the time Reagan left office in 1989. But it turns out there was a peace dividend after the fall of the Berlin Wall: National defense spending dropped from 26.5% of federal outlays in 1989 to 16.1% in 1999. That savings--a tenth of the budget--migrated to human resources, where spending climbed to 60% of outlays by 1995. The category has stayed above that level ever since, reaching almost two-thirds of federal spending (65.6%) and 13.1% of GDP in 2003.

The numbers confirm what every despondent conservative already knows. Since Reagan's stunning victory in 1980, conservative journals have annihilated forests to print articles about excessive government spending. Conservative think tanks have produced sweeping plans for reducing the welfare state. Republicans occupied the White House for 18 of the 26 years after 1980, and held a Senate majority for 16 1/2 years and a House majority for 12 years. Yet the result is a federal establishment bigger and more influential today than in 1980.
Read it all here or in the original.

That's actually the "good news" part of the essay. The rest outlines the bad news: ways in which conservatives blew a quarter-century of governing (or, as has been said in other situations, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory), and even lost (or did they just throw in the towel?) the debate while they were ruling. And then asks, having lost the debate, is it nonetheless possible to emerge once again with a positive message? Do read it.

Tip o' the hat to Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor Mail (you do read that, don't you?).

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