The Conservative Colossus

P.J. O’Rourke claims (and the article below paraphrases) that the big advantages republicans have is that they talk about how government always screws up, then take power and, when they indeed inevitably screw up, they say: See?!

I swing towards the left in some areas, and to the right in others. I call myself “conservative” because conservatives tend to trust people, families, communities to do for themselves what they think is right, while “liberals” tend not to trust anyone (besides themselves) to make rational decisions.

The crux of rational politics is to let the most individuals choose. That necessarily requires the smallest possible government. Which in turn means maintaining the checks and balances upon which this country was founded: a split government, even when “my guys” are in charge. Regardless of which party is in control (even the ones who cry for smaller government), when the chips are down and all three branches united under one house, the government expands and inevitably takes away more and more of individuals’ right to choose for themselves.

‘Remember the $400 hammer? How ’bout that $600 toilet seat?” asks a Conservatives for Patients’ Rights TV commercial criticizing President Barack Obama’s health-care plan. “Seems when Congress gets involved, things just cost more.”

As it happens, I do remember the incident of the $436 hammer, the one that made headlines back in 1984. And while it may “seem” in hazy retrospect as though it showed how “things just cost more” once those silly liberals in Congress get started, what the hammer episode actually illustrated was a very different sort of ripoff. The institution that paid so very much for that hammer was President Ronald Reagan’s Pentagon. A private-sector contractor was the party that was pleased to take the Pentagon’s money. And it was a liberal Democrat in the House of Representatives, also known as “Congress,” who publicized the pricey hardware to the skies.

But so what? Myth is so much more satisfying than history, and with myth the competence of Washington actors from 25 years ago doesn’t matter any more. Nor does it matter which arm of the federal colossus did what. Republican or Democrat, White House or Congress, they’re all part of a monolithic, undifferentiated “government” that acts according to a money-burning logic all its own.

The myth has been getting a lot of play from conservatives in recent weeks as the debate over health care has heated up. The message, as always, is that government can’t do anything right.

The government does a lot of things right. But the government wasn’t created to care for ME, or for THEE. It’s to soothe the rough edges to our system (keeping terrorists locked up and discouraging criminal behavior) so that we both can make the choices that are most rational to our respective positions. If, in the words of Justice Holmes, your right to swing your arms stops at the tip of my nose, the government creates a deterrent force field that defines where, precisely, the tip of each nose lies.

Unfortunately, with a single-payer system, the tips of many noses lie very, very far from the rational position of many individual heads.

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