Big Government

Posted: October 12, 2010 in Reason Posts

As the inaugural post for Reason & Rants I wanted to post on something I had been been thinking about for a while and try to inject some reason into an argument imfused with rhetoric. Essentially, I argue that “big government” is not inherently evil (I’m not going to address inefficiency here) and that recent attempts to demonize it are loaded with misunderstanding and hypocrisies.

The recent political battle over health care (and bank bailouts among other issues) has sparked a debate nationwide, which is raising fundamental questions about the nature of the American government, and its relation to the people. That much is clear from the emergence of the Tea Party movement. One focus of this debate has been the issue of “big government,” which has been repeatedly villainized by the right. President Obama has been called (and portrayed as) a socialist, a communist, a Maoist, and a Nazi. Simply because he wanted to provide health care to those who can’t afford it, keep costs down for those who already have it, and protect the benefits provided by insurance companies? Yes. And it shouldn’t be that surprising when you consider that America has struggled with the size of the federal government since its independence. In fact, when the US Constitution was adopted to replace the Articles of Confederation (scrapped because the federal government was too small to be effective), the Bill of Rights were included as amendments primarily to decrease the size and scope of the government. And many of the major Supreme Court cases in the last two centuries can be traced to a disagreement about how big government should be. It is something our nation has struggled with, partially because we are a nation of immigrants, many of whom fled oppressive governments. We are distrustful of big government because we have seen its ill effects. We are fearful of it because we value our personal freedoms and know that—as Gerald Ford put it in address to a joint session of Congress in 1974—“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have”. However, the characterization of big government as bad government is inaccurate. I hope to point out some of the fallacies, inconsistencies, and misinformation in the rhetoric which leads to this characterization.

First, it’s helpful to clarify exactly what is meant by “big” government. What is it exactly that makes a government “big” anyways? The current debate characterizes government as big either by its hierarchical distance from the people (i.e. local governments are smaller than state governments, which are smaller than the federal government) or by the size and scope of government programs (i.e. government spending). In favor of brevity, I’ll forgo complete discussion of the first and note only that my home state of Texas covers 268,820 square miles of land, has 254 counties, has 205 cities with a population of 10,000 or more and a total of 23.5 million residents. Looking at these statistics, I’m forced to ask myself if my state government is really local at all. There is an enormous range of needs for each individual community, and so it’s easy to see that even at the state-level, legislation cannot reflect the needs of every community. It is an illusion that government becomes less representative the higher up you go—it just happens to represent a different set of people and communities, the needs of which may be vastly different from your own.

Turning to the amount of spending on social programs and the number of governmental agencies needed to implement these, the main criticism of “big” government centers on the idea that the implementation of social programs amounts to redistribution of wealth, or socialism. The problem with this notion is that redistribution of wealth is not a function of big government. It’s the function of any government. In order to provide any level of service to its citizens, a government has to collect taxes from all citizens (according to their ability) and redistribute them. The government creates paved roads for those who drive, using tax money collected from those who don’t drive. Libraries are provided for literate citizens and are subsidized by tax money paid even by the illiterate. The postal service is subsidized by tax money from people who use UPS or FedEx almost exclusively. By the logic of many fiscal conservatives even schools (in addition to the above named services) are “socialist.” (Note that this isn’t a stretch: many talk about “privatizing” our schools through the voucher program) So why is it now ‘evil’ to use tax dollars from all Americans—including those that opt for private insurance—to subsidize health care for some citizens? If the ramped up rhetoric (often portraying Obama as a Stalinist) is any indication, it’s because “redistribution of wealth” that comes with increased government spending is associated with socialism. While this association seems logical it is factually inaccurate. Socialism itself refers to theories of economic organization, which advocate public (or direct) ownership of capital and allocation of resources. What’s important here is that a government can implement a wide range of social programs while also promoting and advocating for capitalism and a generally laissez faire economic policy. If there is any question as to whether or not this can exist, you need only look to modern Germany, which is partially a product of the great capitalist success story that was the Marshall Plan. It also happens to practice something known as the social market economy, which is essentially a regulated form of capitalism, in which social programs are widespread. There is nothing that reeks of the Soviet-style socialist economies, which controlled industry and product distribution amongst the people, and denied citizens freedom to choose their career. By the way, Germany also happens to have the 4th largest economy in the world and the largest in the EU, and has come through the recession alright. So not only is big government not socialism, Germany makes it clear that it can help direct a struggling private sector.

One of the greatest inaccuracies propagated throughout the healthcare debate takes the conflation of social programs and socialism a step further and suggests that socialism is communism. So now, by way of analogy the rhetoric says that social programs equal socialism which is equal to communism. Therefore social programs are tantamount to communism. Again, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the term socialism, which refers only to an economic policy. But there is also a confusion that communism is an economic policy. It is not. Communism refers more specifically to an organization of society, and a centralized government to ensure the communist ideal is achieved. That does include economic planning, but it takes it to an extreme that is not implied in socialist theories.

I hinted at it earlier, but I want to emphasize that I feel that much of the anger over health care and other ‘socialist’ policies is coming from the rhetoric. Simply stated, rhetoric has no use for fact. The nuances between socialism and communism are lost (even though I think the conflation of social programs and socialism was probably deliberate). Therefore, I’m skeptical of how much of the anger is natural and how much is artificially induced. It’s not hard to understand why many people are angry: they hear that we’re moving to a socialized heath care system, but they hear—and this is reinforced by rhetoric—that we are moving to a socialist health care system. Most heads of households today grew up during the cold war, when they were continually told of the evils of socialism / communism and the virtues of the American way, which stands in direct contrast. As such, they feel like their core values as an American citizen are being assaulted by a socialist agenda. It’s not surprising that we would see the sort of reaction we do as a result.

I feel somewhat conflicted as I’m writing this, because I don’t want to characterize the whole of America as uneducated and ignorant. But I do think it’s fair to say that the most ignorant voices are often the loudest. It’s with this in mind that I want to point out one of the major hypocrisies in the argument that a government big enough to provide a wealth of social services is also big enough to take from you everything you have. This may be a true statement. But it is being used to advance a Republican agenda that wants to see a “small government”. The hypocrisy is that the Republican leadership oversaw an enormous expansion of government, mostly in the bureaucracy of national security and military. Although this was certainly prompted by the tragedy of 9/11 and a certain amount of it was warranted, it forces me to ask how seriously the Republican leadership takes the argument. If we should be scared by expansion of government through social programs, shouldn’t we be more scared by expansion of government in the very mechanisms, by which government would be able to oppress us? Further, if it’s government spending we’re worried about, shouldn’t we be as worried about funds that are being spent militarily as we are those being spent to address a major issue that’s been neglected for the better part of the last half-century? Additionally, many fiscal conservatives are also social conservatives, meaning that they support the bans on gay marriage and abortion. That means that they argue for big government in social issues. The apparent hypocrisy leads me to wonder again if the complaints are really based on substantive arguments or on a larger agenda.

The last thing I want to address here is the fallacy that big government equals oppression and small government equals liberty. First, a government that is too small can be extremely ineffective, and thereby prevent liberty. Recall that government exists through a social contract precisely because liberty is necessarily absent in the absence of government. Individual freedoms compromise the freedoms of others, which is why government exists in the first place: to make sure that freedom is allocated equally among citizens. Recall also that the U.S constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation because the central government wasn’t powerful or stable enough to ensure this essential duty. By a similar token, large government is not necessarily oppressive. As mentioned earlier, modern day examples such as Germany bear this out. But, the real issue isn’t the size of the government or the scope of its programs. The real issue is how much unchecked power the government has over its citizens. It’s not that a big government can give and take away as it sees fit—it’s that a big government, which is not held accountable by the people can do this. As long as America continues to hold lawmakers and executives responsible—and our leaders keep their promise to keep each other honest—there is no real danger of widespread oppression arising from expansion of government.

There might be more practical concerns such as efficiency in bureaucratic mechanisms, but these issues are completely divorced from concerns about socialist or communist takeovers. The ideology and rhetoric of a few seem to be shaping the debate in a way that is ignorant of crucial details. It is laden with overgeneralizations, hypocrisy, ideology, and flat out misunderstandings. That is the real travesty in the debate over health care and other issues—these elements of the rhetoric keep us from having real debate on either side of the aisle. Instead of addressing the real issue of bureaucratic inefficiencies, we talk about how big government is oppressive. Instead of talking about the size of the deficit in honest terms, we choose to support a budget that supports our ideology. We choose not to provide solutions to problems, but only to tear them down. We choose not to reevaluate policies that have allowed us to get where we are. Most tragically, we choose to talk about American values in terms of political ideals, and not how we treat our citizens.


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