How Can Limited Government Ideas Win Elections?

I was intrigued by the question posed by Jim Geraghty at National Review Online yesterday, “Do We on the Right Still Trust the People?” My first instinct was to respond “yes, of course we do,” because after all the idea that we as individuals can take care of ourselves better than the government can is one of the reasons we believe in limited government.  The problem is, the American people have not been voting as though they really believe that themselves.  So really, this question is two questions:

  1. Do we trust the American people to take care of themselves?; and
  2. Do we trust the American people to vote in ways that allow them to take care of themselves?

The answer to the first is obvious, as I’ve already mentioned.  We do believe that the people are better at taking care of themselves than the government is.  When left alone by government, individuals will be more empowered to make a living for themselves and pursue happiness as they wish.  Society as a whole would be happier and more prosperous under a limited government than it currently is under big government.

The second question is much more difficult, because the American people have not voted for liberty.  Instead, they have voted for the much easier relative security of the cradle-to-grave welfare/entitlement state and the nurturing of big government statism.  Clearly the American electorate has not given us reason to have faith in them to vote against the largesse, as the welfare state has continued to grow.  The question is:  Why?  And as a secondary question, how do we reach out to voters to get them to understand that they will be better off under smaller government than they are under big government?

The answer of why so many people have voted for more big government is that they have been conditioned to believe that they truly are voting in their own self-interest.  They really do believe that they are better off by voting to have the rich guy in the nice neighborhood pay more taxes so that they can receive food stamps, welfare, section 8 housing, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, free birth control, ObamaCare, and other big government programs.  You and I know that these programs are sapping their incentive and drive to better themselves, but unfortunately many of these voters simply don’t know better.

These voters have recently been dubbed “low-information voters” by Herman Cain, Rush Limbaugh, and others, but the information that they do get is antithetical to liberty.  After all, the image about libertarians, conservatives, and Republicans that many voters get is that we light cigars with $100 bills, only care about cutting taxes for rich people, hate poor people, kick puppies, and hate America.  Part of the problem is in our messaging.  After all, yes, we do support cutting taxes for rich people; you and I know that lower taxes lead to more prosperity and more opportunity for those who are in poverty by giving them the ability to find jobs and advance their economic cause in life by earning a paycheck that they have the ability to make larger through hard work and gaining job skills.  Yes, we do believe in cutting entitlement and handout programs, because these programs discourage work, prevent people from taking the individual initiative to work hard and earn more money, and perpetuate poverty not only for those on the programs but for their children, who get caught in the cycle of dependence.  We know how these programs work, but by saying we want to cut them without eloquently saying why it is in the interest of those using the programs to cut them, we lose the ability to ever gain their support.  Yes, there is an excellent moral case to be made against robbing Peter to pay Paul, but there are a lot more Pauls than Peters, and the Pauls vote.  We have to reach out to Paul as well.

How do we do that?  As AEI President Arthur Brooks wrote in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal, the problem is rooted in the fact that only 33% of Americans believed that Mitt Romney “care[d] about people like me.”  We have to stop being so callous in our messaging, and instead of just making our case, we have to make it clear how it helps all Americans.  We have to show why the free enterprise system works for ALL Americans, not just the rich.  We have to show that we care, and that our policies are the way that we care.  We have to make the moral case against the welfare state from the perspective of those currently using the welfare state, and we have to show those individuals why freedom is better for them.  As Brooks says:

Meanwhile, the record of free enterprise in improving the lives of the poor both here and abroad is spectacular. According to Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, the percentage of people in the world living on a dollar a day or less—a traditional poverty measure—has fallen by 80% since 1970. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. That achievement is not the result of philanthropy or foreign aid. It occurred because billions of souls have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to global free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship.

The left talks a big game about helping the bottom half, but its policies are gradually ruining the economy, which will have catastrophic results once the safety net is no longer affordable. Labyrinthine regulations, punitive taxation and wage distortions destroy the ability to create private-sector jobs. Opportunities for Americans on the bottom to better their station in life are being erased.

Some say the solution for conservatives is either to redouble the attacks on big government per se, or give up and try to build a better welfare state. Neither path is correct. Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don’t pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.

Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.

This is the case that conservatives/libertarians/Republicans need to be making.  We have to show more people why and how our ideas and policies work for them.  Then we may be able to get them to trust themselves the way that we trust all individuals to care for themselves.  Winning at the ballot box will be the only way to push for more freedom (and, despite their recent big-government ways and the weakness of their Congressional leadership, I do agree with Rep. Justin Amash that we should be working through the GOP to push our agenda).

One other problem that needs to be addressed is the idea that many conservatives simply don’t trust people to make personal social decisions for themselves.  The idea of the American people being capable of managing their own financial affairs but not their social ones goes against the original question of whether or not we trust the American people.  If we do trust the American people to take care of themselves, then we can also trust them to make the decision to marry someone of the same sex, to make wise decisions on whether or not to use certain drugs, or for a woman to choose whether or not to have an abortion.  The social busybodies are costing votes for our side, and right now the image for conservatives is not good.  Look at CPAC banning GOProud from sponsoring events this year and gay marriage opponents trying to oust the Chairman of the Illinois Republican Party over his support of gay marriage.  There are also millions of women who may otherwise be open to the idea of economic liberty, but who hate the idea of the government telling them what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.  There are millions of young people who may be open to our ideas, but refuse to vote for conservatives because of their support of the failed Drug War.

Ultimately, what conservatism needs is to become more libertarian, and we all need to reach out to the American people by first, defining the problems of big government; second, showing everybody why big government is bad for them as individuals; and third, by showing how liberty will benefit them.  That’s the only way to save America from the impending fiscal doom.  We have to win at the ballot box.

Jeff Scott is a former and aspiring future radio host currently hosting his own weekly podcast, which you can listen to at  You can find him @jeffscottshow on Twitter and on Facebook.

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