The Dead End Sitting in the Middle of the Road

How Political Centrism Always Leads to Bigger Government

As it does once a month, this Sunday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a commentary written by the state’s designated political centrists, former Democrat Congressman Tim Penny and former Independent candidate for governor, Tom Horner.

 This month’s theme from Messrs. Penny and Horner was the Federal government shutdown, “If Congress won’t lead, others must.”  They write,

A full-fledged debate over the appropriate role of government at the beginning of the 21st century is overdue. However, instead of a thoughtful discussion that explores legitimate ideological differences regarding the size and role of government, we hear only each side blaming the other.

I don’t know about Penny and Horner, but I hear that debate every day.  The problem is not a lack of debate, but that true “balanced solutions” cannot exist when the “ideological differences” are ones of kind and not degree

The “size and role of government” cannot both increase toward a progressive utopia and be constrained by law and custom, at the same time.  There is no split-the-difference solution that allows for both government expansion and spending restraint. 

One or the other view must prevail to end gridlock and return to business as usual.  In the past 100 years, American government spending (all levels combined) has gone from less than one-tenth of the economy to almost half.  The mathematics of a split-the-difference, balanced solution can no longer work.

Thus, the centrist gambit of “fiscal conservatism, social liberalism”—raising taxes to pay for more spending—is to decide the issue in favor of the liberal/progressive viewpoint

On Monday, Minnesota Public Radio invited on Penny and Horner to discuss their newspaper column live on the air, just as MPR does each month after conservative Katherine Kersten publishes in that same Sunday Star Tribune space.  On the broadcast, Penny and Horner cite Minnesota examples [cf. the 02:30 mark of the recording] where big business, labor unions, non-profits and government work together to put aside their differences and create…bigger government.

How could the result be anything else?  If the stakeholders are business, labor, non-profits and government, three of the four groups will vote for bigger government every time.  Collaborative yes, but balanced, no.  In the end, stakeholder-driven, consensus-building exercises become–either explicitly or implicitly–majority rule efforts.

Frankly, if the result of this “thoughtful debate” on the role of government is to produce more big government solutions, as Horner and Penny suggest the outcome should be, then we need look no further than the bankrupt City of Detroit to see where this process ends.

It would have been helpful to the discussion if either Penny or Horner had mentioned a single instance where stakeholders got together with government and the result was a smaller role for the state.  Instead, the success stories cited by Horner [9:00 minute mark]—education, healthcare, and environmental protection—where he claims stakeholder-led “innovation” has occurred, probably represent the three most bloated and intrusive parts of state government.

The pitch that political centrists make to end gridlock boils down to this: scrap the mutual vetoes and checks and balances that exist in the current system, switch to a process that will produce a result (no matter what) and reconfigure representation in the process to weigh in favor of the constituencies of bigger government. 

The stakeholder process replaces representative government with something guaranteed to produce a result.  To the losers in the thoughtful debate on the size and scope of government, centrists will say, “you had a seat at the table.”

In the end, I don’t see how the centrist-led, stakeholder process they recommend does anything other than provide cover for the ultimate triumph of the liberal/progressive viewpoint.

Cross-posted and comments welcome at Bill Glahn.