Samuel Goldman at The American Conservative urges conservatives to shift focus from big government to complex government.
One issue is the size of government, as indicated by government spending per capita, government spending as a share of GDP, or other broad measures. The other is the complexity of government, as measured by the proliferation of the tax code and regulations, subsidies for particular industries, or other specific policies. Size and complexity often go together: the labyrinth of the defense budget is a good example. But they need not do so: although Social Security is fiscally gargantuan, it is a rather simple program.
Conservative critiques tend to identify gargantuan size as the main problem with modern administrative state. This argument, however, usually fails to connect with ordinary citizens, who generally like big government provided that it is delivered in a predictable and relatively transparent way. Social Security, again, is a case in point. According to thispoll, for example, 53% of American prefer raising taxes to changing the retirement age or lowering benefits.
What Americans do not like are complex programs that require expert assistance to navigate, and therefore confer disproportionate benefits on those who can afford the assistance of lawyers, accountants, and lobbyists. Although it is hard to make out from polls, I suspect that this consideration is the basis of continuing disapproval for Obamacare. The issue here is not simply that providing universal health coverage would be expensive. It’s that the Administration’s plan for doing so is a Rube Goldberg contraption that threatens to make unintelligible the already confusing insurance system.
Dan McCarthy recently counseled conservatives to understand the struggle against big government as a long-term project rather than a unitary problem to be resolved by dramatic votes like that on the fiscal cliff or debt ceiling. The place to start might be to accept, at least temporarily, bigness in government while attacking complexity wherever possible. This strategy would allow conservatives to stake out a position against unnecessary regulation, expensive subsidies, and potentially criminal cronyism while reconciling them to the reality that Americans like their basic entitlements and are reluctant to change them
I think this is a pretty good idea for conservatives to embrace. Who doesn’t hate bureaucracy and red tape? Social Security is here to stay, and health care if anything will come under the scope of government even more. People want it that way. If you disagree, just look at what happens to politicians when they try to cut either.
Complexity is another issue altogether, though. Conservatives can really contribute in this area, and possibly rebuild their brand in the process.