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The Politics of Increments

Conservative icon Morton Blackwell has 45 “Laws of the Public Policy Process,” where he basically provides bite-sized nuggets of wisdom about politics and governing that really transcend partisan boundaries. While they’re all valuable maxims, there is on in particular that I want to draw attention to for my friends who are deeply committed to Texas Congressman Ron Paul and follow him with cult-like fervor:

19. All gains are incremental; some increments aren’t gains.

Liberals seem to have mastered this concept of “incremental gains” in politics. A small victory here. A small victory there. It’s the price an ideological liberal must pay to know that one day we will exist in a Social Democrat-style country modeled after the nanny states in Europe.

Yes, government will care for us from cradle to grave and freedom and prosperity will be discouraged and stifled. It’s like slowly being run over by a steamroller and realizing there’s very little you can do about it.

Liberals aren’t exclusive to the Democrat Party, either. There are plenty among the Republican ranks who believe government is good and should do more for people. I have a saying for that: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Plenty of Republicans think it wise to codify social policy for “the public good.” They’re on town councils, in state legislatures, and even in the United States Congress. A friend of mine often quips, “The damn do-gooders are going to get us killed.”

And they probably are.

But at least they understand that every small victory is indeed still a victory. Every new tax or new program brings them closer to their ultimate goal. It’s like the anecdote of the frog in boiling water: Drop a live frog into a pot of boiling water, and he’ll quickly jump out; slowly raise the temperature, and the frog will be cooked alive.

And while it’s not completely true, it rings true in politics. We saw it in 2008/2009.

Under the Bush Administration, the American people were content in being incrementally screwed by big government Republicans masquerading as conservatives. The budget grew… and grew… and grew… and people barely noticed. Finally, Americans began noticing toward the end of Bush’s second term when the housing bubble popped and career politicians began telling us certain private companies were “too big to fail.”

Then came bailouts. And TARP. And ObamaCare. And it was all too fast for many of us.

Of course, some Americans were griping about big government all along. Although, not in a way palatable to most Americans. Libertarians had been saying “I told you so” for years. But no one was listening.


Because, unlike liberals, the libertarians advocate for dramatic cuts to the size and scope of government. Do I necessarily disagree that many of these cuts should be made? No, but I understand that in the world of electoral politics, you can only stake out a position and win if a majority of people find that position tolerable.

America didn’t find itself in this budget mess in one fiscal year, and we sure as heck won’t be able to dig ourselves out of it in that time.

I am cautiously optimistic about House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which aims to cut over $6 trillion in federal spending in the next decade.

Here’s a video:

Some on the right, however, don’t believe this is enough. And they refuse to accept anything that isn’t “enough” in their opinion, regardless of how politically palatable it is.

Anyone who doesn’t agree 100% with their viewpoint are considered unprincipled sell-outs. But if you’re going to play the game, you have to play by the rules.

The fact is, we have to consider the small victories. We have to win where we can. “All or nothing” isn’t a governing strategy. And losing by not budging is irresponsible.

But I’m likely writing all this in vain. Because I like to see my words written down.

Because I’m fairly certain that those who need to read this and absorb it are too ideologically rigid to take good advice. Some should recognize that any incremental shift rightward – any conservative victory – is better than a shift to the left.

Until then, we’ll keep losing to big government liberals in both parties.


1 Craig Drake { 04.06.11 at 1:30 pm }

An important distinction that I don’t think you make is that between the realpolitik and the wider world. As F. A. Hayek put it, “society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow”

A big mistake to make is to think that the ideological argument has won and that all that needs to be done is to incrementally push back Big Government. To rely on Hayek again, it is important to maintain “the belief in the power of ideas which is the mark of liberalism at its best.” To continue, “the main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote.”

This was clear in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the victory of the intellectual argument that “what is good in war is good in peacetime.” At that time, the liberal intellectuals failed to hold their ground and allowed an ingress of Big Government ideas that half a century failed to erode.

We saw the same in the aftermath of the financial bailout, where there was a deafening silence where there ought to have been a robust intellectual defence of the free-market. In an echo of the previous event, we now have “what is true in financial disaster is true in periods of low volatility” and that Government knows best.

Politicians may choose to wobble in policies and build on shaky ideological ground, and sadly they are not always punished as they should be, but outside of this murky world, the liberal (or libertarian as it seems to have become known) argument should remain robust and unwavering.

2 The Good, the Bad, and the Perfect. | Matthew Hurtt { 04.11.11 at 9:08 am }

[...] discussed last week the maxim: All gains are incremental; some increments aren’t gains. This is just one of the more than 40 “Laws of the Public Policy Process” developed by [...]

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