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When flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush was sitting in on a second-grade class at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Later that day, he found himself preparing the nation for war. In a matter of hours, Bush had traversed a divide, from the photo-op distractions that had come to preoccupy our chief executives to the serious business for which we have a national government, and a president.
As we put aside the trivial pursuits of the focus-grouped presidency to meet exigent national concerns, conservatives and liberals both need to reacquaint themselves with the core constitutional principle that the federal government–in order to be energetic and effective in its proper sphere–must be limited. More precisely, the energetic national government that we now desperately need presupposes and requires limits. A serious war against terrorism demands a credible campaign against the nanny state.
The administration has not so far been willing to recognize those limits. To do so would require drawing a distinction between the war on terrorism and the poll-tested baubles that comprised its pre-9/11 agenda–targeted tax cuts, charitable “incentives,” and federally funded and supervised school “accountability.” Indeed, the wartime president is again visiting grade school classrooms, now pitching penpalships with Kuwaiti kids, and the White House has yet to declare any of its old domestic initiatives officially dead.
Small-government conservatives and libertarians have likewise failed to draw crucial political distinctions and to forsake their reflexive anti-government rhetoric for a sober consideration of the ways in which government must grow more powerful to defeat our enemies. There has been on the right a rather indiscriminate bellyaching over an impending expansion of big government. Complaints have ranged from a general, dire prediction that September 11 will produce another “ratchet” of war-induced government growth to very specific objections to the airline bailout, federal reinsurance guarantees, and provisions of the just-enacted anti-terrorism legislation.
Liberal pundits, meanwhile, have had a hard time containing their enthusiasm for what they take to be the restoration of the era of big government. “After decades of self-loathing,” Jacob Weisberg enthuses in the New York Times Magazine, “Washington is proud once again to be the place with the answers.”
Both the gloating and the lamenting over “big government” are grossly exaggerated. September 11 has not expanded the national government’s presumed authority, which was already boundless. While the war against terrorism will bring some new programs and a higher level of spending, an incremental enlargement of the federal pork barrel is not a quantum leap. It is the old politics, fought over a slightly larger pot of money.
Rather, September 11 has reintroduced us to the difference between national interests and the self-absorbed issue-mongering that Washington defaults to in times of peace and prosperity. The terrorist threat to the nation, and indeed the world, is real, serious, and immediate–unlike, say, computer models showing one half-degree Celsius of global warming over the next century. The threat is national in scale–unlike such recent national “crises” as suburban sprawl and trace levels of arsenic in a few rural water systems. And terrorism and the war against it are truly national in the sense that neither can be reduced to constituency politics and interest-group demands. It is the country that is at stake.
This distinction–between a real national interest and special-interest causes dressed up as crises–is lost on the liberal establishment, because those trumped-up crises are their national agenda. That is why Washington-is-back pundits believe the public’s renewed trust in Washington and its support for the war against terrorism will translate into support for Hillary Clinton’s wish list–from improved mental health care to more efficient internal combustion engines, child care benefits, and Amtrak service from Bismarck to Biloxi. That, too, is why the congressional Democrats promptly mistook an airline security bill for a union jobs measure.
Vigilance against liberal attempts to use September 11 for the greater growth and glory of the nanny state is altogether commendable. Still, to construe our new politics as nothing more than a struggle between partisans of big government and small is to miss the real reason for pursuing a limited-government agenda–namely, that there is a war to be won.
Two major new federal initiatives that conservatives would otherwise have been unable to stop are now indefinitely on hold: an education “reform” of, by, and for the teachers’ unions; and a patients’ bill of rights that was mostly about the trial lawyers’ inalienable right to sue health care providers in a forum of their choosing. Those enactments would have brought vastly more centralized government–and vastly greater gains for unions and plaintiffs’ attorneys–than the most ambitious anti-terrorism and relief programs contemplated since September 11.
Beyond such crowding-out effects, the perceived, constituency-driven “priorities” of the nanny state will tend to give way when they conflict, as they often do, with the real priority of fighting–and winning–the war against terrorism. As the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger observed in a trenchant column, the trial lawyers’ vow to abstain from lawsuits over the fallen World Trade Center was an ironic concession that September 11 compels a break with the normal operation of our legal system (in this case, legalized bounty-hunting). Similar ironies and contradictions abound.
Environmental Protection Agency monitors at ground zero in New York have found violations of federal trace-level standards for asbestos, PCBs, and dioxin. Comparable violations have in the past prompted EPA-ordered evacuations, including the closure of an entire town (Times Beach, Missouri); yet the clean-up effort in Manhattan goes forward. Tom Daschle’s anthrax-polluted offices are being fumigated with chlorine, a chemical that the environmental movement has for years sought to ban. We cannot ensure a robust, resilient energy market if we continue to obsess over the hurt feelings of polar bears and calving caribou on Alaska’s North Slope. We would be constrained in flying B-2 bombers from Missouri to Central Asia under the Kyoto global warming accords, which threaten to count war-related air emissions (except for U.N.-approved missions) towards a U.S. carbon dioxide budget. We cannot ensure an adequate supply of smallpox vaccine, let alone administer it in an emergency, unless we also immunize producers against punitive product-liability suits. The FBI cannot track down international terrorists if it must devote manpower and resources to the pursuit of such federal “interstate” crimes as carjacking, gender-based domestic violence, and the failure to pay child support.
Even before September 11, the obsessions and distractions that now compete and conflict with a serious war effort were, for the most part, just that–irksome, inane, and occasionally expensive distractions. Conservative resistance to those schemes, however, rarely gained traction. So long as the nanny state’s “priorities” lacked a contrast, let alone a conflict, with an actual national priority, the voters were too bored to pay attention, too nice to say “no” to the next group of miserable claimants, and at any rate persuaded that a resilient economy could surely afford another public program.
There is no point in decrying the voters’ apathy–which, in times of peace and prosperity, is rational and in fact a protection against even greater political mischief. (Think what Washington would promise a mobilized electorate.) The lesson, rather, is that the principal threat to limited government does not arise from a national government that pursues the nation’s interests with energy and resolve. The threat, rather, arises from a government that cannot tell the difference between a national crisis and a constituency demand, between a war and an interest-group favor.
In the wake of September 11, voters easily comprehend those distinctions, and they will be receptive to political initiatives that translate them into practice. Conservatives should therefore resist the tendency to characterize serious wartime measures as just another big-government charade. Our national government must be limited not because it should be enfeebled, but rather and precisely because it must not be distracted from the life-and-death work it has to do.
Michael S. Greve is the John G. Searle Scholar at AEI.
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