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Rick Santorum and Limited Government

Editorial

January 2012

by Andrew E. Busch

With Rick Santorum’s as-good-as-a-victory in the Iowa caucuses, the former Senator from Pennsylvania is now receiving more detailed scrutiny from commentators, especially conservatives eager to consider whether he might be a viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. A story line is rapidly developing that puts Santorum outside the economically-conservative mainstream of the party.

Eric Erickson of Red State calls Santorum a “pro-life statist,” and Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute has recently written a column for National Review Online tagging him as a “big-government conservative.” In Tanner’s view, Santorum’s answer to Hillary Clinton—his book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good—”advocated greater government involvement in our lives” and was indicative of a broader approach showing a weak commitment to liberty.

This critique has a number of elements, some of which are much more sensible than others. The charges of statism leveled at Santorum cannot generally be faulted for the accuracy of the facts that are presented. However, they can be faulted for providing an incomplete picture.

Having voted for the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind, Santorum clearly was part and parcel of the Republican Party’s general surrender to big government conservatism under George W. Bush.

His commitment to free trade is also questionable, given his votes against NAFTA and in favor of some higher tariffs. However, he voted for the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), five other free trade agreements with individual countries, fast track trade authority for the president, and normal trade relations with China, all difficult votes in Pennsylvania.

Critics have also made much of Santorum’s use of appropriations earmarks, but this charge is less damning. Though highly charged symbolically, the amount of money involved pales in comparison with other components of federal spending, nor did earmarks actually increase the total amount of money spent by Congress. In any event, those were the rules of the game. While we might hope that members of Congress would take a principled stand and step away from the use of earmarks even though they were allowed, it is not clear that reluctance to unilaterally forego them should disqualify one for the presidency.

More generally, Santorum on balance clearly believes in the free market as a superior mode of organizing the economy. His overall view is much closer to Michael Novak’s pro-capitalism Catholicism than to the social democratic version that strongly influences policymakers such as former congressman Bart Stupak. In It Takes a Family, Santorum argues that government cannot “provide” or “secure” the general welfare, only “promote” it, declaring that conservatives “believe in lower taxes; common-sense, predictable regulation; free trade; and less litigation. They believe in the power of markets more than they do in the power of government… Free markets are also the basis of all real and lasting wealth creation.” Santorum concludes that these principles mean that government’s primary economic obligations are to preserve property rights, maintain a sound currency, and prevent fraud.

As a member of Congress, Santorum supported the balanced budget amendment, the budget cuts and tax cuts that Bill Clinton vetoed, the budget cuts and tax cuts that Clinton signed, and the 2001, 2002, and the 2003 Bush tax cuts. He opposed cap and trade and numerous proposed tax increases. Overall, in his last year in office Santorum had an 81 percent rating from the Club for Growth, making him tied for 13th best in the chamber; in comparison, Arlen Specter (while still a Republican) earned a score of 40. The year before, Santorum scored a less impressive 74 percent, placing him 35th in the Senate. Overall, the Club for Growth says Santorum’s record on taxes is “very strong,” “mixed” on spending and regulation, “very outspoken” in favor of pro-growth entitlement reforms, strong in favor of tort reform and against regulation of political speech: in sum, “above average.” For its part, the National Taxpayers Union calculates that Santorum received a 75 percent career average from the group while in Congress, slightly above the Republican average of 71 percent and well above the chamber average of 41 percent during those years. This was enough to earn a career “B+” from the NTU. These ratings go along with his high ratings—in the 90-100 percent range—from social conservative groups like the Family Research Council. Perhaps his most notable single legislative contribution was to shepherd through the Senate the 1996 welfare reform, arguably the most important conservative reform of the welfare state since the beginning of the New Deal, converting an entitlement program into a block grant controlled by the states.

In the current campaign, Santorum has endorsed repealing Obamacare and replacing it with free-market health reforms; cutting spending by $5 trillion over the next five years, including a reduction in discretionary domestic spending to 2008 levels; restraining the regulatory proclivities of the EPA; phasing out farm subsidies, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac; cutting corporate taxes and restoring the Reagan-era personal income tax system with two rates, 10 percent and 28 percent; and adopting the Ryan plan for the transformation of Medicare. These positions are in line with the economic positions espoused by most of the Republican candidates, and are more credible coming from Santorum than from some of his rivals.

Even his views on family, which are certainly not strictly libertarian, do not fit neatly into the category of statism. He is a strong supporter of vouchers and homeschooling, and he and his wife homeschooled their own children. To the extent that he favors government action to bolster the position of families in society—or, more often, the deliberate fashioning of government policy to avoid undermining that position—it is on the basis of a Tocquevillian analysis which holds that policymakers cannot be indifferent to the fate of the family as an institution precisely because family is an essential component of civil society that serves as a barrier between atomized individuals and the state. To put it another way, family is part of the essential structure of free society, and weak families leave a vacuum that will only be filled by a hyperactive state.

Tocqueville similarly influences Santorum’s views on individualism. Like the famed French observer, Santorum is not an opponent of individualism, but he argues that if taken to an extreme, unbalanced by other virtues, individualism will undermine the conditions necessary for its own survival. As a result, Santorum holds that “Selflessness in the family is the basis of the political liberty we cherish as Americans.” Libertarians instinctively recoil from this concept. Yet it is a concept that can be applied in other ways, as well. An extreme individualism that seeks private gain at the expense of justice can be a genuine threat to the property rights of others, and most libertarians would probably agree that even a properly limited government may take steps to restrain its negative effects—not to destroy liberty, properly understood, but to preserve it.

None of this is to say that Santorum is an ideal candidate from a free-market perspective (is there one in the Republican field?), or that his emphasis on social issues is well-suited to the moment, filled as the moment is with economic perils and anxieties. It is to say that, as George Will has pointed out, Santorum is a legitimate representative of the tradition of fusionism that has held economic conservatives and social traditionalists together for 50 years. And, in Santorum’s case, that fusion is intentional; to the extent that he varies from libertarian means, it is often due to a calculation that the variations are necessary in order to preserve the end of a free society in an imperfect world. When assessing his economic views, it is useful that conservatives and libertarians are weighing the shortcomings of a Santorum candidacy, but they also need to give his strengths their due.

Andrew E. Busch is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.

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