April 13, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

On ‘big government,’ the GOP has changed its mind

The biggest BFD in politics right now.

Government was bad under Reagan. Not so much now.
Government was bad under Reagan. Not so much now.

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Humans tend to do the same thing over and over for a long time until a transformative moment comes along to upend all those habits. We have witnessed so many transformative moments – the pandemic, the George Floyd protests, the J6 insurrection and the fall of Roe – that we must concede that we are now living through a political realignment.

A sign of this is a Republican Party changing its mind.

This is transparently true. State legislatures dominated by authoritarians have recently been using the hard power of their respective governments to determine social conduct for the purpose of shaping their cultures according to the desires of rightwing politics. 

Republican-dominated states are telling, or attempting to tell, people what they can say, what they can read and where they can travel. They are now telling private firms what they can say and how they can hire. The Republicans used to be the party of “economic freedom.” It now stands ready to punish businesses that don’t do what they’re told.

That means that the best argument against greater regulation corporations and higher taxes on the very obscenely rich has vanished.

The Republicans are, if nothing else, practical in that they don’t think about whether something is good or bad, but whether its outcome pushes their agenda. Its intellectuals, therefore, don’t consider policies and courses of action to take. Instead, they follow along, willy-nilly, scrambling to provide rationalization of outcomes after the fact.

A recent example comes from the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that played a leading role in the rise of “neoliberalism” in the 1970s and 1980s, and that provided the brainy gravitas needed to undergird what had been called “intellectual conservatism.” Heritage was perhaps the most vocal champion of minimal taxation, minimal regulation of business and the enfeeblement of federal domestic (welfare) programs.

Back then, in rightwing circles, the federal government was seen as standing against the interests of white people. A transformative two decades had just come to a close in which it recognized for the first time the rights and privileges of outpeople, and enshrined those rights and privileges in Supreme Court precedent and federal statute.

From that view, this meant minimal taxation, minimal regulation and the enfeeblement of federal domestic (welfare) programs were not only seen as good for corporate America. They were good for white America.

So it was surprising for some to see Heritage release a paper this week seeming to flip 40 years of policy on its head. It used to see economics and government as antipodes, as diametric opposites. But the paper argues for their integration. Its title: “Free Enterprise and the Common Good: Economic Science and Political–Economic Art as Complements.”

A sampling of reactions:

“I remember when you could walk into a room full of Republicans and say that economic liberty was a good thing in and of itself.” Plus: “This is entirely antithetical to the principles of limited government and individual liberty.” Finally: “There are times in my life where I cannot believe that I spent an entire decade working for Heritage. Have you taken down the paintings of Hayek and Friedman in the lobby? I hope so, because they wouldn’t want to be associated with the place.” 

Fact is, the government has always played a role in the economy. It wasn’t socialist. It wasn’t communist. It played a role even when the Republicans who were running the government said it played no role at all. (Spending on national defense has risen by orders of magnitude since the 1980s, juicing military-contract firms and everyone who does business with them.) The question was never whether. It was how. 

The liberal view has usually been that the government should grow the economy from the middle out. (This is Joe Biden’s thinking, too.) The illiberal view has usually been that the government should grow it from the top-down – with the very obscenely rich taking a very obscene share, then passing it to heirs who do nothing but be born. 

You might favor one over the other, but both are legitimate and both have always informed the government’s steerage of the economy.

“Movement conservatism” papered over this with stentorian talk of “limited government and individual liberty.” It hid this so well that many people, respectable white people, were S H O C K E D by the organ of “limited government and individual liberty” choosing to swap “the invisible hand of the marketplace” for “the visible hand of the state.” 

The best reaction?

A quote from the paper – “Achieving these goals means buttressing the invisible hand of the marketplace with the visible hand of the state” – and then a meme: “Sounds like Communist propaganda, but OK.” 

The Heritage Foundation isn’t descending into communism, nor is it reversing itself. It has always stood for the economic interests of white people, and with this new paper, it continues to. We can see that in the “common good” of the paper’s title. There’s nothing common about it.

It’s a coy way of identifying those who most benefit from the rightwing integration of government and economics, the same people who most benefited from 40 years of minimal taxation, minimal regulation of business and the enfeeblement of federal domestic (welfare) programs.

Call it socialism if you must, but be accurate. 

It’s socialism for white people.

A GOP changing its mind about “big government” is the biggest BFD in politics. But it’s not the only one. Changing its mind means the best argument against greater regulation of corporations and higher taxes on the very obscenely rich has vanished. With rightwing politics growing hostile toward firms that are selling things to an increasingly diverse America, those same firms may find more friends among Democrats despite their calls for greater regulation and higher taxes.

With the Republicans embracing “big government” (however oppressive it may be), no more arguments stand in the way of liberal experiments in remaking the economy. The fake choice used to be between the party for government and the party against government. The real choice is now obvious — between opposing theories of government.

Do you want one that shapes the economy for all?

Do you want one that shapes the economy for some?

That’s good for one party, but not both.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Bern on April 13, 2023 at 4:15 pm

    Is this another way of saying: “The unfettered market didn’t solve the problem of melanin-enhanced people gainting influence and stuff (sometimes even more stuff than us!) so we’re just gonna harness what’s left of the gummint’s money to the fetterless marketeers just to PROVE the market never fails!”…?

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