Friday, October 30, 2015

The "Small Government" Fraud

Watching the recent Republican debate, the third so far of the season, one is reminded of one the Republicans' favorite things to do: attack the size of the government. In that debate alone, you can find numerous examples of candidates talking about how much they just hate the federal government while the Democrats love it.

When asked about his plan for climate change, Chris Christie started off by saying "Well, first off, what we don't do is do what Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and Barack Obama want us to do, which is their solution for everything, put more taxes on it, give more money to Washington, D.C., and then they will fix it." Carly Fiorina told the moderators that "every time the Federal Government gets engaged in something it gets worse." Jeb Bush said that "It's always a solution of the left to create more Government from the Federal Government. It is broke, it is not working."

This sort of rhetoric has a long tradition in the Republican Party, going back at least to Ronald Reagan, who regularly derided the government and talked about his desire to shrink it, famously quipping, "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"

Ronald Reagan (source)
But here's the thing: the Republicans don't hate the government, federal or otherwise. By and large, they love it. Let's start with Reagan. As president, he invaded another country, ramped up military spending, ushered in a draconian new era of the War on Drugs, and helped pave the way for the modern surveillance state. Somehow, that doesn't quite sound like the record of someone who hates the government.

The big-government Republican legacy continued and expanded in the Bush era, when we got the invasion of Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, the prison in Guantanamo Bay, and a prescription drug plan for Medicare that prohibits the government from negotiating for a better price on the drugs it's paying for. That's a quite a few holes for the government to pour taxpayer money into, and quite a few abridgements of the individual rights that the Republican Party claims to be so intent on protecting from big government.

The people standing on the stage at the latest debate were no different; Jeb Bush wants to expand our offensive against ISIS and loves the NSA's surveillance programs, Carly Fiorina wants to expand military programs and conduct exercises to intimidate Vladimir Putin, and Chris Christie wants a federal crackdown on marijuana usage. All three of them, and many of the other candidates, clearly love big government. It just has to do the things that they personally want.

So why this facade about wanting to shrink the federal government? Simple: the Republicans have a long history of rolling back welfare programs and federal regulations, that goes back to--surprise!--the Reagan era. It's a pretty tough sell to argue that spending money to help poor people is bad, but giving it to big corporations is good; it's not much easier to convince people that banks and big corporations should be free to do as they please, but everyday people should see their rights eroded. America has a long history of distrust toward the government, as one can see just by looking at quotes from some of the Founding Fathers. Thus, it's easy to exploit this distrust to push for an agenda of cutting regulations and aid to the poor, while just ignoring the fact that other programs you're pushing for would actually expand the government.

The Republicans have mastered what George Orwell termed "doublethink:" holding two contradictory ideas to be true, simultaneously. So at the same time that the government can't do anything right, it needs to act more aggressively against ISIS and Russia, do more to prevent terrorism, and protect our children from the toxic influence of marijuana. While the elites probably know that this small-government crusade is a hoax, their propaganda campaign has had the interesting effect of creating legions of people who are honestly sure they hate the government, but then turn around and support strict laws against abortion, constitutional prohibitions on gay marriage, city-wide bans on mosques, and any other number of blatantly big-government policies.

I'm certainly not the first person to observe this, which I'm well aware of, but it's a cognitive dissonance so stunning it's hard not feel as if you're being beaten over the head with the absurdity of it. Unfortunately, I think many liberals have failed to adequately address the situation, instead trying to argue that big government is a good thing. That's a strategy that, for reasons I've detailed before, is doomed to failure. The simple truth is that there are policies that the government can enact which will help people and make things better, and then there are policies that will simply waste money and/or restrict personal liberties. Of course, we can debate which policies fall into the first category and which fall into the second. But first everyone has to have the intellectual integrity to admit that there are some government policies they like (that includes you, libertarians) rather than pretending they are consistently opposed to everything the government does or can do--virtually no one actually is. That's particularly the case with modern "conservatives," who have done a lot to expand the influence of government in negative ways. But, unsurprisingly, that admission doesn't seem to be forthcoming.

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