The Private Abuse of the Public Interest: Market Myths and Policy Muddles

By Lawrence D. Brown; Lawrence R. Jacobs | Go to book overview

6 Pragmatic Policy
in the Marketplace of Ideas

The collision of appeals to expand markets and shrink government with disjointed, issue-by-issue decisions to expand government's roles and functions has rendered conservative public philosophy incoherent. Conservative political leaders, pundits, interest groups, and contributors denounce big government but promote government activism on behalf of worthy exceptions to their “principle.” This Jekyll and Hyde performance may yield short-term political gains: small government promoters boast of their political virtue, identify with worthy cases, and express outrage at “big government” for misserving the public.

This political pattern might be called (with apologies to Mancur Olson) the illogic of disconnected action. An endless caravan of liberal rules and conservative exceptions fuels a steady growth of government, while those fueling it reassure the public that the era of big government is over. A cynical spin might attribute to this illogic a calculated logic all its own: insofar as talking up small government discredits and discourages (other) claimants and reduces competition for scarce resources, conservatives can better brandish their philosophical bona fides while seeking benefits for their prized exceptions.

The result is a democratic disconnect between a national narrative trumpeting small government and steadily increasing expectations of government. Government expands pragmatically under pressure from constituents and political interests, but the public sector lacks the workers, money, and information to fulfill its enlarging duties. All too often government disappoints expectations, which encourages

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