The lie of big government conservatism

I was recently quoted along with some much better known conservatives in an e-mail sent out from a conservative web site:

“Once the government becomes the supplier of people’s needs, there is no limit to the needs that will be claimed as a basic right.” — Lawrence Auster

I didn’t recognize the statement as my own, and thought maybe it had been mistakenly attributed to me. So I searched for the quote via Google, and found it in an old article of mine at Newsmax. The piece, “Big-Government Conservatism Comes to ALEC,” published August 6, 2001, is about an address given by then Housing Secretary Mel Martinez to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national organization of conservative state legislators. I showed how Martinez used dishonest rhetoric to make the ever expanding role of government in our society seem palatable to his small-government audience. The whole article is worth reading, but here is the section that contains the quoted phrase:

… In other words, what Martinez was suggesting was that a gargantuan government bureaucracy bestowing free homes on people who are unable to purchase them on their own is in the tradition of Jefferson and Lincoln. Such beneficiaries of public largesse, Martinez commented, are “sharing the American Dream.”

To prove this was not a contradiction, he quoted Lincoln’s idea that the purpose of government is to provide for people the things that they can’t provide for themselves. Whether or not it was Lincoln’s intent, the comment could be construed as making the modern welfare state consistent with the oldest traditions of the Republican Party.

At the same time, Martinez tactfully acknowledged statist excesses at HUD. The agency, he said, has undergone “mission creep,” expanding its functions and becoming more and more bureaucratized.

But isn’t such mission creep built into the very idea of government as ultimate provider? As the state’s steady growth over the last 70 years indicates, once the government becomes the supplier of people’s needs, there is no limit to the needs that will be claimed as a basic right—whether they are for guaranteed college loans, or for “Enterprise Zones,” or for increasingly sophisticated and expensive medical care, or for a host of other goods and services that once would have been regarded as luxuries but are now seen as indispensable requirements of the good life.

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Why does the supplying of a need by the state come to be seen as a right? Simple. As Americans understand it, the first and primary function of government is “to secure those rights,” the rights of life, liberty, and property (or the pursuit of happiness). Now those rights being both limited in number and indispensable to our existence as human beings, they are considered sacred and non-negotiable. But what if the government gets into the business, not just of protecting our most basic rights, but of supplying our material needs? The supplying of material needs will inevitably come to be seen through the paradigm of basic sacred rights, and therefore as non-negotiable. Consider it this way. The values of any society tend to conform themselves to the highest and most authoritative idea of the society. The most authoritative idea in our society is that government comes into existence to secure our God-given rights. So if the government also starts providing our mortages, our college educations, our employment, our local art museum and concert hall, our plastic surgery, and ten thousand other material benefits, those things will be seen as basic rights that cannot be touched.


Since this entry was posted the quote has cropped up at several conservative sites.)

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 12, 2006 12:14 AM | Send

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