The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberal welfare state’s corruption is an opening for conservatives

Among the findings of a recent Gallup poll was this: Since 2006, the percentage of Americans who think corruption in government is widespread has soared from 59 percent to 79 percent. As Gallup notes, “Perceived widespread corruption in the U.S. government could be on the rise for several reasons, including the significant media attention on issues such as the IRS targeting of conservative groups and National Security Agency leaks. Americans not only feel that the U.S. government is performing poorly, as demonstrated by record-low congressional approval ratings, but they also report that the U.S. government itself [is] one of the biggest [problems] facing the country today.”

In some sense, it is reassuring to see that the public hasn’t bought the Obama administration’s line that every scandal — from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Internal Revenue Service — is “phony.” The poll also suggests that Americans have also clued into the day-to-day cronyism that afflicts government and creates a decidedly un-level playing field (e.g. too-big-to-fail bank bailouts, green job scams, unqualified fundraisers appointed as ambassadors, elite green activists repaid for campaign largess with anti-jobs moves against coal and the Keystone XL pipeline).

For Republicans, this is an opportunity, if they can take advantage of it. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has made anti-cronyism a central focus of his agenda, as have other reform conservatives.

For conservatives, this entails not merely reforming the tax code, rooting out entrenched favoritism (e.g. the Davis-Bacon protection for union wage rates in contracting) and punishing wrongdoing (whether by the VA or the IRS). It means making the case that limited, energetic government focused on fewer items and more willing to send funds to the states than to micromanage the country from Washington would go a long way toward diminishing “rent seeking” and the built-in advantages for the rich, well-connected donors and industries.

Truth be told, we need government to be better at what it does, not be disqualified from performing essential functions that Americans expect (e.g. border security, national defense, maintenance of a safety net ). And that, conservatives should argue, is virtually impossible when you create huge centralized bureaucracies and mountains of regulations for far-flung areas of life, many of which can be handled by other levels of government or eliminated altogether. There is a danger here that recognition of government corruption will drift into wild conspiracy-mongering, anti-government bloodlust (e.g. the shutdown) and unrealistic demands that the federal government return to the pre-New Deal era when it did relatively few things and therefore got into less mischief. There is little sign that Americans want paralyzed government. Rather, they are demanding that politicians do their jobs without feathering their own nests.

In “Room to Grow,” the reform conservative’s guidebook,  Yuval Levin writes:

The fundamentally prescriptive, technocratic approach to American society inherent in the logic of the Left’s policy thinking is a poor fit for American life at any scale. The liberal welfare state ultimately cannot be had at an affordable price. It is not the architecture of one or another particular program that makes it unsustainable. It is unsustainable because the system as a whole must feed off of the innovative, decentralized vitality of American life, yet it undermines both the moral and the economic foundations of that vitality. (For him and other reformers, the key is to in effect clear out the underbrush, rebalance the relationship between the federal and state governments, help nurture essential elements in civil society and then clean up what is left — e.g. entitlement reform.)  . . .
In practice, the conservative approach to public policy therefore points toward putting in place programs that enable a kind of bottom-up, incremental, continuous learning process, rather than imposing wholesale solutions from above. Generally speaking, this is an approach to problem-solving that involves three steps: experimentation (allowing service providers to try different ways of solving a problem), evaluation (enabling recipients or consumers of those services to decide which approaches work for them and which do not), and evolution (keeping those that work and dumping those that fail).

When this occurs, not only is government smaller, more effective and more conducive to a thriving free society, but it also is, not coincidentally, less corrupt.

Conservatives therefore should not cheer all that much for a poll that shows nearly 80 percent of Americans think government is a corruption racket. They should take it as a challenge to present a vision of a federal government that is more effective at what it does and more deserving of the public’s trust. In essence, a finding like this is not a “success” for conservatism but a conversation opener. It’s up to thoughtful conservatives to set out an agenda that is attractive to ordinary Americans and restores their faith in a government that is leaner, less overbearing and more supportive of their personal and communal aspirations.