In the mid-1990s Bill Clinton was going with the flow and announcing that the big government era was over. Late in 2001 liberals and neoconservatives have been saying that the easy U.S. victory in the first stage of the war on terrorism shows that big government is popular again. That's illogical spin, and they should not be allowed to get away with it.
We can puncture the balloon of those who would use military needs to engorge government generally by learning from the original Cassius Clay of Kentucky. Some may remember that name as Muhammad Ali's pre-Muslim moniker, but I'm referring to the antebellum anti-slavery editor and politician who faced many hostile crowds. In the 1840s he typically picked up a Bible and said, "To those who respect God's word, I appeal to this book." Then he held up a copy of the Constitution and said, "To those who respect our fundamental law, I appeal to this document." Then he took out two pistols and his Bowie knife and said, "To those who recognize only force ..."
Conservatives today should adopt an updated Cassius Clay posture, with three arguments-Bible, Constitution, and a readiness for political skirmish-deployed as necessary. Let's start with the Bible, which is clear on government's proper function. Biblically, government's chief role is to wield "the power of the sword" against both external enemies and internal criminals. Since we need government to terrorize terrorists and other evildoers, we need soldiers, cops, and judges. Government officials mess up when they go beyond protection to reconstruction, in a vain attempt to create with their power a new Eden.
Three thousand years ago the prophet Samuel, a realist concerning government power-seeking, issued a warning about the appetite of a king: "He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves." (Today, restricting government to a tenth seems utopian.)
Those Bible lessons are important, but many Americans believe we have outgrown God's Word. For them and for all of us who respect the Constitution as written, the Preamble to that great document makes a memorable distinction. It notes that the federal government exists to "provide for the common defense" but to "promote the general welfare." There's a huge difference between providing and promoting; the Founders' choice of those particular words was not accidental.
"Providing" means doing the job yourself. The government has an army; religious organizations, the Lions Club, and the American Atheist Union do not have armies, because Washington's job is to provide for the common defense. "Promoting" means developing a favorable environment within which others are likely to step up. The federal government was not involved in poverty-fighting during the 19th century, but American churches, synagogues, businesses, and civic and fraternal associations fought a war on poverty then that was far more effective than our capital-W War of the 1960s and 1970s.
It is constitutionally right to grow a big government for defense when we have potent adversaries abroad. It is constitutionally wrong to grow a big government for welfare of various kinds, especially since civil society can accomplish many of the tasks that government has taken upon itself. Legislation concerning President Bush's faith-based initiative took a wrong turn in 2001, but the road is now clear for some minor improvements right away and a far better approach in 2003 after congressional elections. And outside of Washington during 2001, many local groups advanced their own initiatives and helped millions of people. A little promoting of the general welfare will go a long way.
All Americans should learn the Constitutional distinction between providing and promoting. Yet what if proponents of big government for domestic purposes pay attention neither to the Bible nor to the Constitution? Then conservatives will have to wage tough but peaceful political warfare, so that a government fresh from defeating terrorists will not turn to terrorizing its own citizens. Cassius Clay used his Bowie knife, but we will need a president who uses the bully pulpit to fight for spending that is needed and to fight against that which benefits the princes of Washington but turns other citizens into paupers.