First, notwithstanding all the disclaimers from Ross, David Brooks, and other champions of a non-libertarian conservatism that “we didn’t mean that!”, I’m afraid the distinctions they seek to draw are far too subtle for the meat-axe of real-world political debate.
And, of course, it’s not just compassionate Hamiltonian Sam’s Clubism, or whatever you want to call it, that will suffer guilt by association with Bush. Liberal/neocon interventionism is stuck with the Iraq albatross; libertarian entitlement reform is saddled with the Social Security fiasco. Bush is the stigma that keeps on giving.
So, fairly or not, Ross is going to have to resign himself to having the Bush record thrown in his face by limited-government conservatives. And to the fact that this tactic is going to be pretty effective.
And if you ask me, this outcome isn’t that unfair. After all, for years big-government conservatives have pointed to the government-shutdown debacle of 1995 as proof positive that the limited-government agenda was doomed, doomed, doomed for all time. David Brooks, for one, has made the argument many times. And it’s worked rather well, too: the whole idea of compassionate conservatism was born from accepting the force of that argument.
So if anti-libertarians can make such hay out of one fleeting episode, aren’t libertarians justified in returning the favor on the basis of six solid years (and counting) of virtually nonstop blunders?
But there’s more to this than turnabout as fair play. Ross is correct that many of Bush’s greatest misses (prescription drug benefit, steel tariffs, farm bill, energy bill, transportation bill, McCain-Feingold) should be chalked up to vote-buying expediency rather than any considered Hamiltonian governing philosophy. However, I think a good argument can be made that the explicit abandonment of any principled commitment to limited government greatly facilitated this binge of corruption.
The strongest case for strict limits on what government can do isn’t that it’s theoretically impossible for government to exceed those limits to good effect. Rather, government’s activities should be circumscribed because, in the real world, they will almost never be guided by dainty theoretical considerations. Instead, political expediency, as determined by unprincipled hacks, will usually carry the day. And the Bush administration’s sorry record now serves as People’s Exhibit A in that case.