I wanted to steer clear of commenting on Rush Limbaugh’s latest, if only because I don’t really pay attention to the man’s show and have no desire to involve myself in the emerging free-for-all. But a commenter at E.D. Kain’s place raised an interesting point: Limbaugh’s attacks on new policy ideas are driven by a genuine fear of ceding too much ground to the Left, as many conservative reformists are increasingly willing to accept some measure of centralized, state-oriented action.
There is an air of plausibility to this argument, and I admit there’s something attractive about the idea of battening down the hatches, weathering the current storm, and then emerging from below decks with the pure, unadulterated ideals of Republicanism still intact (whatever they may be). But there are a few obvious flaws to this line of thinking.
Freddie deBoer (among others) frequently argues that Republicans have trouble governing because they’re not equipped to govern. In other words, a movement that objects to the very existence of an Environmental Protection Agency or a Commerce Department isn’t well prepared to run the same organizations it spends so much time criticizing. Viewed in this context, Bush’s cronyism becomes understandable (if not excusable), because few Republican wonks were lining up to staff FEMA or the Department of Transportation in 2001.
Limited government, free market reform, decentralization – these can’t be wished into existence. They require some sort of blueprint for implementation. To take a simple hypothetical, say you want to abolish the Food and Drug Administration because you believe the market will do a better job of regulating product quality and safety. Leaving aside the validity of this claim, it’s worth remembering that there are still serious practical barriers to abolishing an entire federal department.
For example, the market may be unable to instantly regulate product quality after decades of federal supervision. The idea of independent consumer guides arising in place of the FDA is certainly plausible, but there’s probably going to be some lag between removing federal oversight and the development of self-regulating market mechanisms.
So what do you do? Do you appoint an interim oversight committee to sort things out? Do you gradually phase out the FDA’s regulatory duties? Or do you simply move on and accept the risk of disease, injury, and even death from defective products?
Of course, no one is proposing the immediate abolition of the FDA, but it’s easy to imagine similar pitfalls stymying other efforts at small-government reform. For all this talk of returning to Republican roots, it’s also worth remembering that conservatives and libertarians are not defending the status quo – and rightly so, because on many of the day’s major issues (healthcare comes to mind), the status quo sucks. Plausible small government policies don’t appear out of thin air, and criticizing new ideas is a surefire way to discourage any coherent alternative to technocratic liberalism from emerging.