Limited Government Isn’t Everything.

The new trans debates show the limits of Reaganite bromides.

President Ronald Reagan, campaigning for a second term of office, smiles during a rally speech at the California State Capitol the day before the 1984 presidential election. (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

There was a time when “the conservative case for puberty blockers” would have just been a meme, an extravagant joke to parody the absurdism of weak Republican officials. But we are living in an era where reality fast outstrips satire, and so this very Tuesday we were treated to the honest-to-goodness “conservative case for minors having transgender surgery.” Asa Hutchinson, governor of Arkansas — Arkansas! — appeared on Tucker Carlson to defend his veto of a bill that would have banned doctors from prescribing puberty blockers to children.

The Arkansas legislature voted to override Hutchinson’s veto, but he stood by it. It’s worth quoting him at some length:

Well, first of all, you have parents involved in very difficult decisions, you have physicians that are involved in these decisions, and — I go back to William Buckley, I go back to Ronald Reagan, the principles of our party, which believes in a limited role of government. Are we as a party abandoning limited role of government, and saying we’re going to invoke the government decision-making over and above physicians? Over and above health care? Over and above parents?

I thought nothing could shock me anymore. But even my jaw dropped at that. Maybe I missed the part of William F. Buckley’s foundational Sharon Statement, or Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address, in which it turns out that the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights guarantee minors the opportunity to get on Lupron until such time as they decide to geld themselves for life.

For what it’s worth, adults who decide after decades of mature consideration that medical transition is right for them have my sincerest blessing — which, incidentally, I don’t think they should need. It’s no business of mine unless you insist on making it otherwise. Which, of course, you do when you bring children into the question.

On the face of it, it’s absurd to suggest that kids have the psychological wherewithal to decide, with or without the consent of parents and doctors, that their reproductive health and function should be irrevocably altered for any reason. What little evidence there is in these very early days suggests that most gender dysphoria resolves itself through puberty — which is exactly what the treatments in question prevent from happening.

In other words, if you feel uncomfortable with your sex as a kid, you may grow up to be trans. But it’s at least as likely, if not much more so, that you’ll grow up to be just plain old gay. Arresting that process with experimental and invasive medical procedures is called child abuse, which is something even the most “limited” government in the world should outlaw and condemn.

What Limits Government?

To his enduring credit, Tucker — who is quickly emerging as a kingmaker for 2024, sifting Republican wheat from Republican chaff — pointed much of this out. “We’re talking about minors, children here, and there are all kinds of things in Arkansas kids — in every state — are not allowed to do. Get married, drink a beer, get a tattoo…. Why do you think it’s important for conservatives to make certain that children block their puberty?”

Why indeed. For ten minutes, Hutchinson continued to stumble painfully through an interview that felt more like a public flogging. All he could do was harrumph uncomfortably about “limited government” and “individual liberty” while Tucker effortlessly gutted his arguments one after another like dead fish.

It is telling that someone like Hutchinson — the governor of a whole state, remember — thinks he can wave away such an appalling political and moral misstep merely by invoking magic names like Reagan and repeating catchphrases like “limited government.” The fact that it even occurs to him to use these sorts of shibboleths — hopelessly irrelevant and catastrophically inadequate as they are — invites reflection about the state of the Republican Party and its prospects for the future.

Hutchinson got one thing right: a Republican platform that focuses on individual liberty is generally associated with the intellectual movement led by William F. Buckley, and put into practice by Ronald Reagan, from the ’60s to the ’80s. And it remains perfectly true that a government limited by the prescriptions of the Constitution is devoutly to be wished. Certainly a hallmark of this COVID-plagued year has been callous disregard for civil liberties on the part of governors, and recklessly destructive invasion of government mandates into private and economic life. In relation to that kind of arbitrary despotism, we might certainly wish to rein the government in.

But “limited” is not the only thing we want governments to be. We also want them to be just, or else they are hardly governments at all. We want our leaders restrained and humble, not neutered and incapacitated. We want our federal powers chastened, not nonexistent. Students of American history will recall that this was basically the whole point of replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution in the first place. If Republicans are the defenders of personal liberty, or should be, they should also be the defenders of law and order — which means the government needs to be in the business of securing both liberty and justice.

In other words: government shouldn’t do nothing. It should do the things the Constitution says it should, and not other things. It’s not enough for it to merely be “limited,” no matter the limits. It could be limited to merely killing babies and doing nothing else — that would be a very limited government, but also, I think we can agree, a bad one.

What we mean, or used to mean, by “limited government,” is a federal power restricted to doing only those things which “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The legitimate and illegitimate means of doing so are outlined pretty comprehensively in the nifty little document which follows those words. Our elected representatives should try reading it sometimes.

Prudence, not Hypocrisy

Anyway, here is a fact about politics that we have lost sight of: different coalitions emphasize different principles at different times to respond to the crises of the day. Crucially, this isn’t hypocrisy — that would be if we were abandoning the idea of limited government altogether. We shouldn’t do that. But we should recall that “limited” was never intended as the be-all and end-all hallmark of good government, the one thing which makes a regime legitimate or illegitimate. It is one of the things a government should be, with the qualifications and according to the principles outlined in the Constitution.

The coalition inspired by Buckley’s and Reagan’s leadership adopted limited government, along with strong defense and traditional family values, as the emphases suited to their era — the era of the Cold War abroad and the sexual revolution at home. That “three-legged stool” makes perfect sense as a response to the challenges of that era and the questions it raised. “Should we explode the nuclear family and abandon ourselves to a bacchanal of free love?” “No, because traditional family values are far more conducive to human flourishing.” “Should we go Socialist?” “No, because Socialism destroys the individual liberties granted us by God and defended by the Constitution.”

Where such questions are still raised, such answers are still applicable. But the urgent point here is that “limited government” and all such Reaganite bromides are answers to some questions, and not to others. The Republican Party seems to have forgotten this. So, faced with totally new challenges and totally new questions — should parents be allowed to have their children castrated? Should a few tech companies be allowed to moderate the digital public square based on their own political whims? — people like Asa Hutchinson can only chant the old hymns.

In other words, establishment Republicans keep applying tools and formulas that were designed decades ago, and wondering why they don’t come up with the right answers to the questions of the last five minutes. Reagan’s name and policy platform has morphed from what it was — a qualified set of answers to a particular set of questions — into a series of all-purpose bumper stickers, which Republicans feel they can slap onto any emerging crisis and call the case closed. That, as is becoming clear, ain’t gonna fly.

This is more than mere RINO-ism. The zombie Reaganites of the party aren’t just Republicans in name only — they’re a certain kind of Republican in actual fact, a kind that refuses to admit that times have changed. They stubbornly insist on trying over and over again the same things that worked when they were growing up. There’s a name for doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting different results — and it isn’t conservatism. It’s madness.

The New Platform

At the same time there actually is emerging something like a new three-legged stool, designed to meet the challenges specific to our present American catastrophes. If I had to put words on it, I’d say the new Right is building a coalition based on caring for the working class, fighting wokeness, and breaking the power of Big Tech to control speech. Politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who back these ideals and put them into actual practice, are likely to pick up buckets of as-yet untapped red votes. Important new allies, like the influential public intellectual James Lindsay, broke for Trump in 2020 because they could get behind this emerging platform. So could record numbers of Hispanics, LGBT people, and other typically blue demographics.

What we need to do now, I think, is replace the old Reaganite bumper stickers with new Trumpist ones. Not that Trump is the be-all and end-all of the conservative movement’s future. But he did usher in the era of the new Right in which we are all living, like it or not. A person like Asa Hutchinson shouldn’t feel comfortable falling back on outdated claptrap to defend indefensible decisions, and people like Tucker are to be praised for holding their feet to the fire on this.

But what if, instead of “limited government,” red-state governors reached instinctively for something like “fighting woke despotism?” That’s what we ought to be about, and it’s a bit of an embarrassment that so many of our supposed champions are still lagging so many years behind in their rhetoric. Changing your slogans and your focus to meet the needs of the day isn’t betraying your principles: it’s exercising prudence, that old virtue of statesmanship which rises to every occasion as it comes. We’re going to need more of that in the years ahead, and the sooner our politicians catch up to their constituents in that regard, the better. If they can’t, we’ll find new ones who can.

Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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The Daily Wire   >  Read   >  Limited Government Isn’t Everything.