Book Review: Leviathan on the Right

Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution by Michael Tanner (Cato, 2007; $15).

Digging back to 2007 for a public policy book would, at first glance, seem like a fool’s errand. Four years in the policy world is an eternity. Since Tanner wrote Leviathan, there have been a few minor developments: Republicans losing (and retaking) Congress; President Obama handing the White House to Democrats, Democrats passing a universal health care bill, etc.

Yet I had a fairly good idea of what I was doing in picking this work: it was written during the most recent era of Republican political dominance, which, given current poll numbers, could very well come to fruition again in 2012. Furthermore, small government is extremely cool right now among Republican voters; GOP nominees are gladly singing the tea party tunes. But what happened the last time that Republicans rode a wave of small government fervor into electoral gains at both the legislative and executive level? Tanner, a health policy expert for the libertarian Cato Institute, does not disappoint.

The book begins with an introduction to the two major strains of conservative thought in the postwar era: traditionalist and libertarian. The traditional school was rooted in a Burkean conservatism, which stressed the importance of existing institutions and adherence to social mores.  Libertarians, influenced largely by Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, felt that the primacy of the individual was both a moral and societal good. Traditionalists argued against government overreach on grounds that it would erode personal responsibility and create an immoral, lazy society. Libertarians argued against government overreach because they cherished personal freedom, which government necessarily infringes upon. Despite many significant internal fissures, thus, the conservative movement agreed on the most important question.

This all changed, Tanner notes, with the rise of the religious right and the entrance of neoconservatives into the party structure. Evangelical Christians joined the Republican party en masse in the 1960s. They brought with them a faith that compelled them to help others through whatever means possible, including massive government action. Neoconservatives brought to the GOP a zeal for foreign intervention and an accompanying lust for executive power, without which they could not achieve their vision of a world remade, forcibly, by America.

By the 1994 midterm elections, the evangelical and neoconservative wings of the Republican party were well established. Republicans went on to take control of the House and Senate, picking up 54 and 9 seats, respectively. While they found such electoral success largely on the GOP’s promises to shrink government, only token changes were made.

Over the next 12 years, the nation’s party of small government proceeded to stick it’s nose in just about everything. Among others, Tanner describes Republican efforts to curtail steroid use in Major League Baseball, nationalize both healthcare and education, and provide a $2 trillion entitlement for senior citizens (the prescription drug bill). These and other expansions of the national government led to the largest average real annual spending growth rate (4.5%) since the Nixon administration.

Tanner names and describes in-depth three culprits: a need to govern, reelection pressures, and a loss of ideological zeal. It is the seeming permanence of these factors which make me a skeptic of today’s Republican presidential candidates’ faith in small government. As Tanner so brilliantly describes in this book, the last time the GOP showed interest in restoring individual freedom, they did the exact opposite. A (perhaps depressing) lesson from a phenomenal book.

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