Newt Gingrich Right to Stand Up to Glenn Beck

Newt Gingrich is not crazy to praise 19th-century government activism.

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Yesterday, I came to bury Newt Gingrich. Today I come to praise him—somewhat.

The former House Speaker has come in for a pummeling for cozying up to President Teddy Roosevelt in an interview with Glenn "Regulation and the government scare the crap out of me" Beck and saying not-apocalyptic things about the federal government's role in developing the Internet.

I don't want to rehash the progressivism-equals-fascism thing. I just want to tender the suggestion that just because you think federal intervention in the economy is a disaster today, you might not want to project that bias, willy-nilly, onto the distant past.

[See a slide show of how the economy would change under Gingrich.]

John J. Pitney catalogues a series of suspicious-sounding statements Gingrich has made over the last 30 years, including this (from 1983):

The era of Republican domination back between 1856 and 1932 was a period of tremendous government experimenting, a period of building the transcontinental railroad without having a Department of Railroad, a period of encouraging homesteading through the Homestead Act, a period of agricultural college and the Morrill Act, which led to the land-grant colleges and the agricultural agent system.

I'm finding it hard to read that paragraph and come away scandalized. Gingrich seems to have been making the point that the federal government, once upon a time, encouraged commerce and home-ownership and agricultural science and transportation connectivity with a relatively light hand (e.g., no "Department of Railroad"). With homesteading and railroads, the government divested itself of property—literally made itself smaller.

Of course, the ottantottist Beckian paranoiac will look at that paragraph and spy the Moment of Temptation; the Fall; the Statist Serpent. On the back of those "experiments" rode in the maladies we know all too well: farm subsidies, rent seekers, housing bubbles, more and more federal agencies.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

But you know what? That's life. You play the ball as you find it. We need to stop conjuring these tidy Edenic narratives of government gone bad. Life is messy, and so is governing a continental nation.

If conservatism circa 2011 is offended by the Erie Canal and the Union Pacific, I can't think of a more self-defeating philosophical foundation (not to mention electoral strategy).

My question for Ron Paulites: If the federal government as we know it today is such an odious, unrecognizable monster, why do you want to run it? What makes you think you can change it, if the scale of change necessary to fix it is as radically large as you seem to suggest?

[See an opinion slide show of 10 wasteful stimulus projects. ]

I'll conclude by noting that Gingrich himself—perhaps on days when he forgets to take his meds—should be on the receiving end of this question.

Tomorrow is another day.

  • See photos of the 2012 GOP candidates.
  • See a slide show of Newt Gingrich's career
  • See a collection of political cartoons on the GOP hopefuls.