Economic conservatives hoped the Republican Congress would dramatically reduce government barriers to free enterprise. Let's be honest: It didn't happen. Leviathan still lives and thrives.
Yet conservatives should not lose sight of the bigger picture. In the upcoming election, no serious candidate for federal office will campaign for bigger government. The candidates who do, or who are perceived as doing so, will likely lose.
Government solutions have lost the moral and political high ground. Bigger government only means higher taxes, more bureaucracy and more policy failures. What's more, everyone but the liberal elite knows it.
Sixty years ago, this would have been unimaginable. All “serious thinkers” then were on the side of socialism. Intellectuals and politicians were united on one central supposition about the future: Freedom and democracy have failed, and socialism and the managed society would take their place.
These were times when anyone who touted free enterprise and political freedom was ridiculed, especially in the most “liberal” circles. Politicians rode to power on the promise of using government power to bring about progress. Everyone agreed that societies could not manage themselves, but needed a great leader to guide them, plan them and mold them after the general will.
It took decades for this pro-socialist attitude to recede as the dominant strain of social thought among American intellectuals. Today, it has been reduced to marginal status. Of course, enthusiasm for the soft socialism of social democracy, the welfare state and corporate planning survive. Increasingly, however, all important intellectual and political battles are between the minority who have high regard for planned, secular society and the majority who do not.
Republicans have been taken aback that President Bill Clinton, an astute politician, has “stolen” one issue after another from their agenda, from welfare reform to tax breaks to the pro-family policy agenda. But why panic? Imitation is the best form of flattery. Republicans should have claimed total victory, just as they should have when, during the State of the Union address, Clinton proclaimed that the “era of big government is over.” It was an admission that the forces of limited government and free markets have won the day.
This is not only a domestic trend. The revolt against big government is occurring in Germany, France, Scandinavia, Latin America and anywhere voters have the choice.
One of the overlooked aspects of the Israeli elections is that Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned not only on security issues, but on the promise of instituting a free economy and deregulating economic controls. He reiterated this point in his first speech after the returns came in, just so everyone understood his intentions.
None of this implies that victories are guaranteed in every battle in every country. Politicians, true to their nature, don't always, or even often, follow through with their promises. Well-organized interest groups often derail progress toward liberty.
But these days, the cave-ins are not regarded as “progress” but capitulation. True progress means progress toward freedom, limited government, free enterprise and desocialization. The theme of the political culture has flipped from only a few decades ago. Voters and intellectuals are both wiser after bitter experiences.
The main impediment to winning is that the opponents of big government still don't have their act entirely together. Their program is not as consistent and coherent as it should be.
How can economic conservatives win more concrete battles in the future? They need a political program that is intellectually coherent and has the self-assurance that it is both moral and workable.
To make this possible, economic conservatives will need to train themselves to develop a greater affection for the capacity of religious faith to bolster enterprise. The religious right could go for some more economic education and adopt a greater tolerance toward decentralized solutions to social problems.
People and cultures attach a great deal of significance to the idea of a century ending, and even more so to the end of a millennium. What will the message be at the end of this one? Will it be that our future is with the omnipotent state, which has done so much for so many in our times? Hardly. It will be that the state has failed. The future is on the side of liberty for the common man, not the power of the state.