More government means less liberty—always? Credit: Thinkstock

It’s nice to assume that newspaper columnists hold coherent beliefs about what the world is and how it works. But if they do, they rarely spell them out. Maybe that’s because newspaper people don’t want to come off as philosophers. They’d rather be seen to exercise a kind of visceral common sense.

So I was surprised and—well, pleased—by John Kass’s postmortem of last Wednesday’s Republican debate. On a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, I either agreed with him or shook my head in amazement at what he had to say—nothing unusual in that. Rand Paul was the only grown-up in the room—agreed. Ted Cruz belongs on the Supreme Court—time to roll up Kass’s sleeve, draw blood, and find out what he’s been ingesting. 

But at the center of the column was a remarkable sentence—a first principle of Kass’s kind of conservatism. It wasn’t said to be argued. It was a self-evident truth. 

Kass wrote that the “GOP establishment” has no use for Paul because he’d “expose the neocons and the war party, and the security surveillance state.” Yet once upon a time, Kass reflected, conservatives wanted the U.S. to stay out of wars, “because wars by definition lead to the aggrandizement of federal power.” 

That’s one reason. Then again, a lot of immigrants—including Swiss and German ancestors of mine—wanted America to have nothing to do with Europe’s wars because those were the ones they came here to avoid. Charles Lindbergh wanted America to stay out of World War II because he thought the white race should stick together and because he thought America would get its butt kicked. There should be more than one reason to stay out of a war, and there usually is. 

But Kass went on: “It is the universal law of political arithmetic that as the government gorges and muscles up, individual liberty fades.”

I suppose the gentleman farmers of Virginia don’t enjoy as free a hand as they did in Thomas Jefferson’s day, but is what Kass asserted entirely true? The U.S. government muscled up considerably for World War II, but that didn’t turn out to be so bad for individual liberty around the world, or even here at home if we set against the new rules and regulations the new opportunities to go to college and own a home. Congress muscled up in the 1960s when it passed all that civil rights legislation; and the Supreme Court showed how ripped it is this summer when it made gay marriage the law of the land.

“Kass’s law” argues that these benefits—to the African-American who gained the liberty to vote and the lesbian who gained the liberty to wed—were eclipsed by an unquantifiable but profound loss of liberty to all. There is a fetching, Newtonian ring to that law—a kind of mechanical inevitability—and if you accept that it’s true you see no need to prove it.

I don’t accept that it’s true. I don’t believe human behavior can be reduced to “universal laws” preached in occasional newspaper columns, or on pulpits, or anywhere else. And I don’t believe that whenever a government asserts itself people suffer. But there’s a lot of human experience behind Kass’s “law,” and I’m glad he’s on the case. When government fattens up, a bell should go off somewhere.