Tim Montgomerie writes:
One of the big conclusions of my ongoing tour of Anglosphere conservative parties is that small government conservatism is proving hard to find in practice...
- As noted yesterday in my profile of Stephen Harper, spending by Canada's minority Conservative government is increasing sharply (although the budget is still balancing)...
- Tax freedom day in John Howard's Australia is getting later...
- David Cameron's Conservatives have largely accepted Gordon Brown's increases in UK public spending to European levels...
- And then, of course, there is the USA itself where George W Bush has presided over a massive increase in federal spending.
Conservative commentator after conservative commentator has agreed that there are few votes in promises to cut the size of the state. Ramesh Ponnuru (pictured) of National Review told me that American voters were against big government when that government subsidised ways of living that offended mainstream values. Welfare reform has changed that. Government looks more palatable to middle America - particularly when it provides the middle classes with support.
A recent article by Stanley B Greenberg in the leftist American Prospect referred to pro-government attitudes amongst US voters:
"People want government to get serious about addressing the challenges we face as a country. Huge majorities want the government to be more involved in a range of issues including national security, health care, energy, and the environment. To tackle global warming, two-thirds of Americans support stronger regulation of business. When it comes to healthcare, the results are dramatic. By a two-to-one margin, people opt for a universal health care system rather than separate reforms dealing with problems one at a time. A majority even goes so far as to say it's time to establish a Canadian-style health care system."
Other numbers quoted by Greenberg suggest a less rosy future for big government, however:
- By 57% to 29% Americans believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life.
- 62% told Pew that elected officials don't care what people like them think.
- 62% also believe that things run by government tend to be wasteful and inefficient.
- 83% believe that government would be more likely to waste any more money it had rather than spend it well.
- Two-thirds believe that politicians put their own interests before those of the public.
Voters are clearly conflicted. They appear to want government to take on more responsibilities but they fear it will be wasteful and self-interested if it does become bigger.
Greenberg's solution to this conflict is to advocate reforms to the state - including tougher regulation of lobbying and better auditing - in order to improve public confidence in the ability of the state to fulfil the aspirations that a majority of voters have for it. It is far from clear if conservative parties across the world have their own distinctive answers to managing the same public attitudes.
This is the third of a series of posts flowing from Tim Montgomerie's four week tour of the Anglosphere. His essay on Canada's Conservatives can be read here and an essay on American conservatism here.