In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the character of Mark Antony is a clever sort. In the guise of “burying Caesar, not praising him,” he unleashes popular nostalgia for the tyrant and rage against his assassins. All this for his own purposes, of course, in the ongoing struggle for power.
Antony’s speech springs to mind every year as the Ides of March approach, especially when a wave of “smaller government” sentiment is sweeping the political world — sometimes directly sponsored by, sometimes simply co-opted by, one branch of the existing political establishment.
The Tea Party movement and the Republican Party are in the process of merging pursuant to the current “smaller government” fad.
Some in both groups oppose the merger — the Tea Party types because they know they’re being co-opted, “serious” Republican types because they fear that “smaller government” promises might actually have to be kept in some small measure — but it’s probably a done deal. The GOP requires a horse to ride back to power; the Tea Party’s energy is beginning to wane and its members are casting about for a rider to apply the spurs.
A match made in hell, and well on its way to consummation.
The Libertarian Party made a courtship play, but was rebuffed … probably because it forgot to bring flowers and chocolates and instead took its “seriousness” so seriously that it came off like the five-year-old playing dress-up in Daddy’s suit. Reward: A giggle, a kiss on the cheek, a “how cute! What a big boy you are!” … and off for the date with the nice gentleman waiting in the limo with champagne.
“Smaller government” movements invariably fail (sometimes in their attempts to seize power, sometimes when they’ve done so and can’t deliver the goods) because they refuse to become what their opponents call them: anti-government.
With few if any exceptions, “smaller government” movements quickly find themselves plagued with contradictions and reservations, either from the get-go or after hard work by their co-optors to shoehorn those contradictions and reservations into the movement’s rhetoric. Sooner or later, it turns out that they’re for “smaller government” … except where they’re for bigger government.
In the case of the current Tea Parties, Republican infiltrators have worked tirelessly to make the movement (which started out with a plausibly “smaller government” orientation on taxes, corporate bailouts and health care) into a “big government” movement on foreign/military policy and immigration, and they seem to have succeeded.
Having broken the Tea Party movement to saddle, the GOP hopes to ride it to victory this November. After that? To the knacker’s yard with it.
For a “smaller government” movement to remain a movement at all, it must maintain some kind of consistency. If it doesn’t, it becomes a mere temporary aggregate of mismatched constituencies, ripe for the picking and quickly thereafter to be peeled and eaten by those who are consistent in one thing and one thing only: The will to power.
The consistency a “smaller government” movement requires is no alien thing or newfangled innovation. Some of the greatest minds in history have held it out to us for the taking. Among my favorite formulations of it is Henry David Thoreau’s:
I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe — “That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
Once we’ve buried Caesar, “smaller government” movements will no doubt attempt to praise him back into existence with “limited” powers. But praising him before burying him will never get them where they want to go. If there’s a path to “smaller government,” that path necessarily leads through the forest of “no government at all.”