As the US Republican primaries march onwards, Cormac Duffy looks at the complexities and inconsistencies of the small government agenda.

There is a stereotypical adage that Americans are keen to show off their greatness through size. The caricatured yank drives a big car to a bigger house to eat an enormous dinner, and is darn proud of it. The sole area that the US have never made room for the ‘bigger is better’ argument is in the size of their government bureaucracy. Since the rise of the Tea Party movement in the wake of the Wall Street Bailout, the entire American right has aggressively reasserted the centrality of the minimal state to its agenda, and it is likely to be the choice line of argument for whoever ends up opposing Obama, whether it’s Romney or not Romney.

The candidates clinging on in the race so far are all cosying up to this libertarian base, with varying levels of authenticity. Ron Paul has led a movement of radical libertarianism with the Republican Party for decades, and many voters will remember Newt Gingrich’s willingness to cause a government shutdown to coerce a balanced budget when he was Speaker of the House in the nineties. The other candidates have fewer laurels to rest on. Romney in particular is haunted by the ghost of the state-funded health insurance mandates he imposed as governor of Massachusetts that served as the basis for Obama’s health care reforms. At the time it was hailed as a model of compromised progression between private and public healthcare systems; now Romney has to declare regret for it to appease the base.

The pursuit of the small state has proved a complex one for those inside and outside of the movement to comprehend. To an extent, this apple pie minarchism is the natural, rational response to the economic climate. With US government spending reaching formidable peaks as a result of the ‘war on terror’, bailouts, stimulus and healthcare reform, dangerous debt levels and pushing for balanced budgets have become the concern of the layman as much as the policymaker. However, this penetrates far deeper into the national psyche. The founding of the union was, at its core, an experiment in guaranteeing freedom to the masses by shackling the state, an idea that sees obvious endurance in the symbolism of the Tea Party movement. The problem is that the small state in the late 1700s meant allowing a handful of civil rights to white people and not killing you because of your faith. The contemporary Leviathan is an altogether more complex beast, something that the discourse needs to reflect.

For an example, just look at the opposition to gay marriage expressed by all the Republican candidates. To hold the belief that the state should be as small as possible but still be all-encompassing enough to stop certain citizens from marrying seems to require either an infinite capacity for Orwellian doublethink or a level of stupidity that would make one question whether you can even tie your own shoelaces. In reality, it’s an indicator of the selective, agenda-serving approach that makes it incredibly easy to undermine those seeking small government.

Portraying itself as an enemy of excessive spending, the Tea Party’s rise instantly called for an explanation as to why they hadn’t opposed the huge increase in public debt that occurred in the Bush era. The obvious reason is that conservatism is innately tied to military strength, and that kind of big government didn’t count. The same could be said for the long-standing acceptance within the Republican Party, as much as among Democrats, for huge subsidies to corporations involved in everything from natural gas extraction to agriculture, even if it was a burden on the state and a complete contradiction of any free market aspiration.

The principles are gaining ground in many ways. The candidates contesting the Iowa primary, a state with a strong agricultural vote, were not harmed by their declarations of opposition to agricultural subsidies. Even now, many are happy to accept that military spending may be as much a problem as social spending. But the ideology is still distorted by who they appeal to.

The low tax agenda has led to somewhat justified criticisms that the movement has been astroturfed by corporate agendas, with particular accusation against the funding from the likes of Koch Industries to small government think-tanks and lobby groups. It is the reason why, for all the progress made, Senate Republicans still blocked a bill to remove subsidies to oil companies last summer. It is the voters who decide where the agenda is applied.

The willingness to roll back government interference ends when it contradicts the interests that are there beforehand. If they want to be taken seriously, a level of consistency is needed on a range of issues, not least on subsidies and social issues such as drug legalisation and LGBT rights, or even reconsider the Doha Development round and tackle the government’s bloated, hugely damaging tariffs on imports from the third world. As long as they aspire to please a base with vested economic interests or social views that involve government intervention, there is little reason to take the small government ideal as any more than an election strategy with a worrying stranglehold on American politics.