At a debate among the Republican presidential candidates in March, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas boiled down his campaign message to its essentials: “Here’s my philosophy. The less government, the more freedom. The fewer bureaucrats, the more prosperity. And there are bureaucrats in Washington right now who are killing jobs and I’ll tell you, I know who they are. I will find them and I will fire them.”
What was remarkable about this statement was how unremarkable it was. Cruz was not taking a radical position; he was expressing his party’s orthodoxy, using boilerplate language to signal that he understood the conservative movement’s core concerns. For years, his fellow Republicans have taken comparable stands. When Texas Governor Rick Perry got into trouble while making a similar pledge in a presidential candidate debate in 2011, for example, it was not because he promised to eliminate several federal agencies—Cruz wants to eliminate even more—but because he couldn’t remember all the particular agencies he wanted to jettison.
Even if the candidates making them are elected, specific promises about, say, closing major government agencies are bound to be broken, for reasons of simple practicality. As a debate moderator had pointed out to Cruz a few weeks earlier, for example, once he had eliminated the Internal Revenue Service, there would be nobody left to see that taxes were collected, which would pose something of a problem for the functioning of the government. But the spread of this sort of thinking in recent decades has had important effects nonetheless, contributing to increased hostility to government and a major retrenchment in government activities.
Many conservatives complain that this contraction has been too limited and that cutting back even further would unleash powerful forces in the U.S. economy and society that would help solve problems such as slow growth, stagnating incomes, low labor-force participation, and rising inequality. They tell a story about a bygone era of economic dynamism when men