distrust of government

“The Reaganite conservative does not trust the political system, and so is always trying to circumvent it; he does not trust the instincts of Congress, but places profound faith in the wisdom of the executive if he is in charge; he does not trust the deep religious instinct of a people, unless it is decked out in the tawdry costume of a minute of silent prayer in school. The only loyalty that eight years of Reaganite conservatism has inspired is of each to the country of his self.”  ~ Henry Farlie (h/t Will)

This called to mind the film Frost/Nixon which I just saw the other day, and that moment when Nixon says:

I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt and the rest.

All of which is to lead into the notion of governance itself, and one flaw that permeates modern conservatism which is this deep, deep distrust of all things having to do with the state.  This, coupled with far too much faith in markets and corporations and so forth have led to a “shrinking” of government by essentially just contracting out government duties to private firms.  In all fairness, this was also a central practice of Bill Clinton who famously claimed that the days of big government were over.  Of course, when you shrink government by simply paying private firms to do government work you’re not really shrinking or limiting it at all.  What you are doing is displaying a deep distrust of all things political.  And this makes it very hard, I would argue, for conservatives to govern competently. Which, conversely, leads to growth of government in ways that simply don’t make sense.

This is why the last eight years were such a complete mess, and why by contrast I’d say that George Bush Sr. was such an effective president in comparison albeit a very under appreciated one.  Conservatives have always believed in limited government, but lately it seems as though limited is not good enough.  Government of any sort save perhaps defense is decried as evil or ineffective, and any move toward providing social services of any kind is demonized as statist or socialist or worse.

I would only submit that there are other forces at play that are as bad as leviathan.  Namely, corporate hegemony and especially the rise of the international corporations.  We have created a system of government that should be celebrated, and conservatives should leap at the chance to really govern well when they get it – which means taking a realistic approach to the needs and concerns of society as well as the realities of the budget.  Democrats seem better at the former, but neither party has proven very good at the latter.  Fiscal restraint, humility, and realism are all virtues of conservatism that can be put to great use in government.  Blind ideology – whether to privatization or tax cuts, etc. – is neither realistic or a recipe for electoral victory.

I think there is much to be said for a conservatism that does not promote any and all deregulation but instead does a good job at weeding out bad regulations, ineffective or damaging taxes, and so forth, and communicates this effectively to the American people.  At the same time, conservatives need to distinguish between limited government – the running, in other words, of a tight ship – and all government being bad and unwanted and oppressive.  This is simply not true.  Government is an extension of society, and while it is prone to abuse and overreach, nevertheless in our system it is also representative and we are all a part of it.

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59 thoughts on “distrust of government

  1. Many of us suspect that conservative distrust of government is simply due to the fact that government is more susceptible to capture by the masses, who might then endeavor to use the apparatus of the state in a matter which isn’t beneficial to economic elites. Which is why you see progressive economic policies being equated, by use of the scare-word “socialism”, with the worst sort of Stalinist brutality.
    Private enterprise, on the other hand, is far less susceptible to such capture.

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    • From what I have seen, conservative distrust of government extends as far as their inability to identify with those in power.

      When it is someone like George W. Bush, big government (NCLB, Steel Tariffs, government surveillance, omnibus farm bills, omnibus highway bills, etc) is not seen as bad in and of itself. At best, you’ll get a “sure, it’s not ideal, but the democrats would be worse” but more likely something like “you don’t understand the political realities of today.”

      Now that they’ve lost power, one can see appeals to the old principles… but it’s hard to see such appeals as much more than a return to a convenient club that worked pretty well in 1993-1994 rather than an understanding of underlying conservative theory.

      (There are, of course, exceptions. The exceptions are, as far as I can tell, individuals while the general statement remains a fair description of the group.)

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  2. “Democrats seem better at the former, but neither party has proven very good at [taking into account budgetary realities].”

    I’m not sure I would agree with this. How have the Democrats busted the budget? Cap and trade is at worst revenue-neutral (if all the permits are given away), and can be fiscally beneficial if we do the right thing and auction them [in the sense that it would decrease, not increase, the budget deficit]. Obama’s health care bill is required to be revenue-neutral–that’s why there’s discussion of limiting tax exemptions for employer-provided insurance, etcetera. Which is to say, Obama will raise taxes to pay for his health care plan. There is the stimulus bill, but that was a one-time response to a crisis situation and is set to expire by 2011. It’s totally legitimate to argue that liberals/Democrats want to raise taxes too much and prefer too large a government, but on the biggest priorities, it doesn’t seem like they’re being fiscally irresponsible in the sense of proposing new expenditures without any way to pay for them.

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  3. I respectfully dissent.

    I’m not a conservative, I’m a mongrel eclectic small-l-libertarian with assorted odd tendencies. But I respect, and endorse, the premise that all government is to be viewed with suspicion and distrust, as well as with “respect”, in the sense that one views a loaded gun on a guard dog with “respect.” Humans act differently when empowered to boss other humans around. Humans of the sort who seek out the authority to boss other humans around also act differently. Systems act differently when centralized and subjected to political forces. Deep suspicion of government is prudent and respectable.

    One may, of course, criticize the expression of that suspicion, particularly when it is offered in gratuitous, self-indulgent, or hypocritical terms.

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    • Obviously I meant to say that a loaded gun or a guard dog should be treated with respect. By contrast, a loaded gun that comes equipped on a guard dog is awesome.

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    • Meh.

      As a political philosophy that makes a lot of sense. As a governing philosophy it leaves you with one option: destroy/dismantle, which ironically enough is a methodology poorly suited to accomplishing its goal.

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      • I’m not sure that’s true. I think it leaves you seeking government solutions reluctantly and with great caution. Government is like chemotherapy: sometimes necessary to survive, but best minimized. Also it makes you puffy.

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        • That’s fair, I shouldn’t have said one option, though it does seem like the libertarian weapon of choice. I think I presumed a harder-line libertarianism than you actually wrote.

          I agree with you that government action should have and deserves scrutiny and caution. For some things, however, government can be a painful yet necessary treatment. For others, however, it can be quite inspiring and accomplish things beyond individual or private capacity.

          I think where I agree with E.D. is that the eternal presumption of government mismanagement handicaps small government conservatives from actually managing the government well.

          Also, nice analogy, I may borrow it at some point.

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          • I think a more underlying fallacy which needs to be addressed, is the presumption that the “profit motive” is the only means by which good management can be achieved–and that by extension, government management is inherently bad because public-sector administrators and officials aren’t necessarily watching the bottom line. Indeed, one reason government is necessary is that there are some services which cannot be easily provided by a marketplace-of-rational-actors (flood control), and certain powers of government (the police power) which we don’t WANT being used for profit.

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  4. Very true, Ken. I think my point here is mainly that government is so demonized by conservatives that they have not spent enough time learning how to use it in a conservative fashion. That’s why, though you hear a great deal of small government talk, whenever conservatives get behind the reigns they seem unable to do anything but lend to the growth of government. I think a healthy respect for government – which includes a healthy skepticism no doubt, and even distrust – is necessary to properly govern.

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    • “I think my point here is mainly that government is so demonized by conservatives that they have not spent enough time learning how to use it in a conservative fashion. ”

      I believe you have a point! Alas, what ‘conservative’ regime are you referring to? They’ve all been RINOs or Neos! We need Paleos.

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  5. Many conservatives, especially libertarians, like to view themselves as the intellectual descendants of the likes of Thoreau and other thinkers who helped inspire the school of thought known today as “classical liberalism”. However, if you ask me, the true descendants of Thoreau are the so-called “left libertarians”, rather than modern Libertarians or modern liberals (let alone socons, socialists, or other groups that like to concentrate power in the state).

    Classical liberalism was, at its heart, about the sanctity and empowerment of the individual against various powerful interest who might attempt to coerce the individual–whether the state, the church, big business, guilds (the modern labor movement was still in its infancy), etc. Modern libertarianism, instead, focuses on protecting the private sector for the state–the two theories differ on how they view place private powerful organizations–as threats to individual autonomy to be controlled, or as victimized entities to be protected. (Modern liberalism tends to focus on group grievances far more so than does the classical variety).

    While I worry about an all-powerful state–and agree it should be viewed with concern, if not suspicion and distrust–I also worry about excessive influence belonging to other (non-state) actors. The two probably should be treated differently–the state has the legal authority to use violence in its behalf, but is at the same time (in the US) subject to the ballot box; neither is true of private actors.

    My main concern about the distrust of government peddled by many conservatives, is that it is little more than an attempt to undermine the one entity capable of checking powerful entities in the private sector. This is not to say that liberals aren’t equally capable of self-dealing, or of looking the other way when it suits them–but that conservative nostrums concerning the evils of government look mighty hypocritical, especially when coupled with conservative willingness to embrace the full power of the State in social and foreign-policy contexts.

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    • No you don’t. But seriously – the question stands: Conservatives want to limit government but they have no coherent plan, so far as I can tell, to do that effectively. In other words, to scale back the behemoth that is government, I think conservatives need to be able to govern well. In fact, I’d say it takes more skill to limit government than it does to grow it. So how can this be done effectively if the best ideas that anyone seems to ever have is a drift toward contracting out government services. I mean, what’s to be done? And how?

      And beyond this, I think that government should be brought down to as local a level as possible as often as possible, but isn’t it important to at least have a healthy respect for your local government – otherwise don’t we run the risk of further disenchantment with the process?

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      • ” So how can this be done effectively if the best ideas that anyone seems to ever have is a drift toward contracting out government services.”

        Who is seriously proposing this? I’m aware that Republicans have done a lot of this, and often conservatives are waaay too defensive of private firms acting under public contracts. But I don’t see a lot of movement conservatives, much less libertarians, proposing that the solution to excessive government power is for government to contract out those services. Indeed, the more you expand the powers of government, the more that you guarantee the expansion of government contracting with the private sector. After all, government needs to get the resources to perform those tasks from somewhere!

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        • Part of the reason for privatization is to get rid of public-employee unions. Public sector employers are under somewhat less pressure to reduce costs than are those in the private sector–and are correspondingly less likely to bargain hard with (or attempt to outright bust) a union. This is true even in those places where public officials don’t enjoy the patronage of labor.
          Whether this outsourcing is good public policy or not is an interesting question–in many cases, the net result of outsourcing is–you guessed it–a transfer of wealth to the wealthy, as middle-class wages go down, and the difference is pocketed by those who own the outsourcing firm, or used to pay for tax cuts that concentrate their benefits on the higher tax brackets.
          Localism (local provision of services) is next to impossible in the current governmental climate, wherein the lions share of tax receipts goes to Washington DC and when it does come back, comes back with strings attached, and is frequently distributed among localities in a haphazard fashion

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      • E.D. , dude, what ‘conservative’ are you referring to? The GOP is practically all Neo/rino/country-club! Go to Taki for cons, what Pat B., he’s a little old (I love the guy), there’s no one else….”It’s all over now Baby Blue!”
        But I’m impressed with your stated desire, it’s up to your generation…that is if you have a country after He-Who-Seeks-the-Truth is done!

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        • Mark, that’s not what people are proposing but that’s what seems inevitably to happen. What proposals do you see coming from the movement? I suppose a pretty wide group (liberals too in many cases) support means-testing entitlements. I see no coherent plan to effectively trim government though. Even health care proposals generally replace one government subsidy with another…

          Bob – you’re telling me that no conservative has ever been in charge in the US of A?

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          • But if it’s something that inevitably seems to happen no matter who’s in power! In fact, the more you expand the power of government, the more that you are inevitably going to have government contracting out to private firms.

            When conservatives and libertarians talk about privatizing something, they’re usually referring to the idea of reducing government’s authority in a given sector. Privatizing by simply contracting the services out is often the worst of all worlds – government’s authority is unchanged, but accountability for those services is reduced.

            In terms of subsidization, I’d note that there is a big difference between a supply-side subsidy and a demand-side subsidy, at least from a limited government perspective. Subsidizing firms directly means that the government gets to pick and choose which firms succeed and which fail; subsidizing the demand side, however, means that the beneficiaries choose which firms benefit and which don’t. The big difference of course, is that 30 million people are going to choose a heck of a lot more firms than a government entity is going to choose through contracting. Moreover, the firms that are chosen by those 30 million people are going to be evaluated by how well they serve those 30 million people, and the people doing that evaluation are going to be those 30 million people. In the other instance, the firms receiving the subsidies/contracts are going to be evaluated by how well they serve the government, and the group evaluating how well they serve the government is going to be the officials responsible for overseeing the contracts. IOW – the basis for evaluation isn’t going to be how well they serve “the people,” but how well they serve the responsible official(s).

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            • Mark I completely agree – it is the worst of all possible worlds, and yet it does happen and quite a lot. The example of military contractors is one obvious instance. I know that ideologically this goes against the grain of conservatism or libertarianism – but in practice this is what so often happens.

              Excellent point on demand-side subsidies though. Duly noted.

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              • But it is what inevitably happens the more you expand the power and responsibility of government! Of course, that said, this is why I get frustrated with the conservative focus on “size” rather than “power” – the former is blind to the idea that you can have a powerful and intrusive, but small government. It’s not that conservatives are “for” government outsourcing; it’s that they don’t realize that this is the effect of cutting government’s budget without cutting its authority.

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          • “Bob – you’re telling me that no conservative has ever been in charge in the US of A?”
            Not in the modern era. All the GOPers have been movement, country clubers (very similar to the derailed social/Dems that have done so much to destroy America-JFK, LBJ, JC, BC, and He-Who-Seeks-Justice).

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        • “Go to Taki for cons, what Pat B., he’s a little old (I love the guy),”

          Ironic that in a discussion on fixing the conservative movement and stating its moral position, a crazy racist like Pat Buchanan comes up. If he or folks like him are going to be a spiritual leader of the new conservative movement, you are going to have a pretty lonely gathering.

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          • Oh, my! Pat B’s a “racist.” You guys gotta be T.V. watchers! And, you’re are supposed to be conservatives?
            Your kidding, right? Come on, now, you guys are socialist Dems having a laugh! No wait, I get it, your just outta college!

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            • He’s an anti-Semite and a homophobe, too; if “racist” isn’t enough for you. And I’m old enough to remember when he was a respectable part of the DC political establishment. :)

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                • Bob C.

                  I actually kind of like ol’ Pat Buchanan. He’s started some good dissident conservative publications like AmConMag (and he was involved in Taki, too wasn’t he?) I don’t believe he’s a racist or an anti-Semite though I do think he says some damn foolish things sometimes regarding race and sex issues. As often as not though he’s spot on – especially in regards to American intervention and foreign policy, the excesses of free trade etc. I part ways with him on certain social issues, but on many others I think he’s thoughtful enough.

                  That said, because he is an America First conservative and critical of Israel he attracts some of the nuttier nuts on the fringes. That shouldn’t reflect him or his beliefs however. Those positions are bound to attract some nuts. Then again, he’s also helped launch a magazine that publishes Daniel Larison, John Schwenkler, and numerous other fine writers and fine minds. That counts for something.

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                  • E.D., You’re ability to provide insightful analysis is beginning to amaze me!
                    My question for you: Where do you differentiate the conservative side, e.g. I put the neos, rinos, statist, country club Repubicans together on one side, while on the other is the paleos, there are those groups on the fringe as well. Do you disagree?
                    And, what about my leftist/statist/socialist friends on the left, how do you differentiate them?

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                    • Also, Pat B. is a loyal, true American through and through, in the manner of a tertium quid. He is a patriot and would have made the finest president in modern times, but the American people no longer believe in the olde repubican principles, we have become, sadly, a social democracy!

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                    • Bob – I’m not sure it’s so easy to break people off into disparate groups. I know it’s important and necessary as humans and political creatures to categorize, but I’d say you have some pretty liberal anti-statists out there (who may be generally socially liberal in that sense) and some socialist types who are also localists (as Dr. Fox over at FPR demonstrates quite well). And I think Roland, elsewhere on this thread or another one, made a good point that these competing interests within the conservative ranks really do – on some level – need one another. So while I agree that most Repubs fall into the silly statist, movement ideologues category I think it may be in part because they do not understand the other choices that exist….

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                    • Roland – like I said, I don’t think Buchanan is a racist, though I doubt he’s terribly racially sensitive, and he does attract the nuts and racists to be sure. But I think that his underlying and core philosophy isn’t one of race but of country – he’s an America Firster and quite a purist in that sense. So on certain race-related issues, well, he can come across as very crass. I might also add that his statements recently on Sotomayor and affirmative action were simply stupid. But not racist (and I don’t think she’s racist either, for what it’s worth.)

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                • BS? Where o where o where should I begin?

                  Perhaps Buchanan isn’t a racist, at least not in some sense. I don’t know the man personally, so all I have to go on are his public remarks–which he has many of in his long career as presidential speechwriter, adviser, and candidate, interspersed with bits of commentary. That, and the company he keeps–which is probably a good place to start.

                  Recently, Patrick J. made news for denouncing Judge Sotomayor’s entire academic career as an AA-assisted fraud, from the speakers’ pulpit at an English-only “conferenece”. While his suggestion that Sotomayor’s entire academic record was unfairly granted to her as a racial entitlement isn’t supported by anything resembling evidence, the judge is not the subject of this thread. Buchanan, and others of his ilk, have on numerous occasions pronounced Sotomayor a “racist” because of her “wise Latina woman” remark. I can’t even begin to COUNT the number of times Buchanan has referred to his Irish Catholic upbringing as a source of wisdom, common sense, and virtue–by the standard he would apply to the judge, Buchanan is a racist–and that’s without going into the numerous far viler things he’s had to say over the years.
                  In the 1970s, there’s little doubt that Buchanan was a bigot–as was his boss, Nixon, and many others in the Nixon white house. Perhaps he’s come around; perhaps not–times are different now, and what was acceptable then is not acceptable now. But Buchanan persists in giving aid and comfort to white supremacist groups and media, by making numerous appearances–were I a conservative commentator, I would avoid such associations like the plague.
                  His hostility to Hispanics is well-documented, and unlike many other commentators, he doesn’t restrict his barbs to “illegal immigrants”. He doesn’t even bother to disguise his contempt for gays, referring to them repeatedly as “sodomites” and on numerous occasions suggesting that HIV was a form of divine retribution.
                  His relations with Judaism seem to have improved over the years. Early in his career, he occasionally dabbled in borderline Holocaust denial, such as the time he suggested that a DC passenger train wreck where children were trapped in a rail tunnel with a still-running locomotive and survived, cast doubt on the veracity of Nazi gas chambers. He also once compared the alleged “persecution” of Nazi war-criminal John Demjanjuk to that of Christ.

                  Perhaps Buchanan isn’t a bigot–but he sure as hell acts like one sometimes.

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                  • Engineer – indeed, Buchanan makes a lot of statements that are completely absurd and certainly I disagree with them much of the time. I just disagree with the extent to which many people go in painting him a racist and bigot. I think he has legitimate religious convictions about some things which I also disagree with personally. But I think much of the anti-Buchanan rhetoric is used by political opponents to demonize all paleo or non-interventionist positions.

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                    • His foreign policy positions, at least in the past, are the things I find least disagreeable about Buchanan. I’m criticizing him from the moderate/left end of the (US) political spectrum–not from the neo-con point of view.

                      There are many conservatives I can think of while not racist in the “lets keep them n—-s in their place” sense, are simultaneously critical of some of the worst pathologies found in many minority/immigrant communities, and unsympathetic to the conditions that frequently cause or exacerbate those pathologies. (There are likewise many liberals who are unrelenting apologists for the perpetrators of such pathologies, arguing that its all whitey’s fault, but that’s another topic). If Buchanan wants to take advocate for a pure meritocracy, sink-or-swim society–fine.

                      But when he persists in hanging around with unrepentant white supremacists, what are we to think? When he mocks Judge Sotomayor, for whom English is practically a second language, for her attempts to improve her skills in English, instead of praising her for her hard work and perseverance in trying to better herself, what are we to think? When he has a record of speeches and appearances spanning four fucking decades littered with code-words and dog-whistles for the nutbar fringe, what are we to think?

                      Buchanan is a nationally-recognized figure, who doesn’t need to make joint appearances with slime like Peter Brimelow–he’s got enough clout, I’m sure, to exclude such cave-dwellers from the agenda at any conference in which he participates. That he shows up at events like this, and on racist radio shows like The Political Cesspool, makes me seriously doubt the “I’m just a hardworking conservative” argument.

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  6. How many private security professionals are over in Iraq. At times there have been as many contractors as US soldiers. Private contractors who are out of the chain of command, whose interests are in line with those who are paying them, yet have guns and can cause all sorts of mischief.

    I’m all for being skeptical of government, but something hasn’t quite been mentioned yet. In a democracy we have the ability through our government to do things. That is the way we were set up. The standard conservative babble to everything they don’t like is to call it socialism or whatever. I don’t particularly see conservatives ( as a wide and not always true generalization) have the ability to separate stuff they don’t like from actual oppression. As much as the Dem’s are still afraid of all the old R attacks, the R’s have lost the ability to tell what efficient gov is. So government is not by definition evil, at least not in a democracy. It is, with many exceptions, the will of the people enacting stuff they want.

    Feel free to opine about how bad/dumb/whatever people are. I’ll probably agree.

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  8. This is a much more complicated matter than what can be discussed in a blog post where questions are asked which demand long, nuanced answers to do them justice. You have inspired me to write yet another post on my blog describing my take — I’ll have it finished tomorrow some time — and I’ll some of the points made in this post that I think are insufficient for a comprehensive understanding of limited government.

    You have the easy job — asking the questions.

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  9. “…neither party has proven very good at the latter [i.e., deficit reduction]. ” In fairness, Bill Clinton did an excellent job at deficit reduction, an accomplishment which GW Bush promptly ruined.

    But you are right about GHW Bush; though unremarkable in the ranks of American presidents, compared to his son he looms as a giant of Solomonic wisdom. In just one area, the elder Bush had the wisdom to listen to wise councillors, the younger did not. (See e.g. Colin Powell.)

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    • Too bad Prescott Bush is no longer with us. If father was this much better than son, then by extrapolation, Grandpa Bush would have gotten his likeness carved on Mount Rushmore.

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  10. E.D.,

    I think your post is right on in terms of the rhetoric but see little evidence that the distrust of government is anything more than rhetoric in conservative circles. There is immense trust in law enforcement and the military for example. They’re also heavily invested in our Social Security and Medicare entitlements. That’s most of government right there which I’d say 90% of Conservatives support.

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