Can The Presidential Campaign Really Turn Into A Debate On The Role Of Government? Let's Hope So
People complain that the presidential debate isn't issue-oriented enough and that Obama and Romney are sniping at each other over peripheral matters like Romney's taxes, his shady offshore dealings and his role at Bain. But there is a full-fledged debate raging between the two parties on the role of government in society. And it goes beyond the dire warnings from Republican former-Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) this week that the extremists who have captured the House GOP are attempting to drive the whole nation off a cliff in the name of a destructive "ideological fantasy," puked out by right-wing dream girl Ayn Rand.
This week, it seemed to all come down to government's role in helping entrepreneurs build their businesses-- through providing security, building roads, educating a workforce to helping with basic research, loans, contracts and subsidies. But, let's be real for a minute: Romney's purposelessly misleading new "Built by Us" website is housed where? On the government-created Internet.
Let's take a step back, though, forget about the Romney campaign's flooding the media with blatant lies about what President Obama said about government's role is in the economy. Instead, let's look at the generational lies conservatives have been making, for the most part hypocritically, about the role of government. And we'll call on our old friend Joshua Holland and his book, The Fifteen Biggest Lies About The Economy, once again. At the end of the 6th chapter, "Republicans Have Never Cared About The Deficit," he asks us to have a closer look: "How More Government (of One Sort) Brings Greater Individual Liberty and Personal Choice." This isn't the kind of thing you'll be hearing from the Romney campaign-- or, for that matter, from any of the crazed and deranged Ayn Rand acolytes running the GOP these days.
In April 2010, the Pew Trust released a poll that got pundits’ tongues wagging. “By almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days,” Pew told us.
According to the polling firm, Americans’ distrust of government had increased dramatically since 1997. “Over this period, a larger minority of the public also has come to view the federal government as a major threat to their personal freedom... 30% feel this way, up from 18% in a 2003 ABC News/Washington Post survey.”
In part, Pew’s findings were a sign of the success of the “conservative noise machine.” They also touched on an important and largely unexamined assumption in our political discourse: that when “government” grows, our individual freedoms and personal choices decline by definition.
To see how facile that equation really is, you have to disaggregate what we mean by “government.” You can divide it up, roughly, into a “security state,” a “social welfare state,” a “public infrastructure state,” and a “regulatory state” (there’s obviously some overlap with such broad categories). The security state can and does add to our personal freedom. If there’s no competent police force and you’re afraid to leave your house for fear of assault by marauding bandits, then you’re not really free.
Having said that, I certainly agree that the expansion of the security state-- criminalizing more behavior, increasing law enforcement’s surveillance of the public, and locking up more people-- is a real threat to our personal liberties. A security state is necessary, but there’s a lot of potential for abuse, and people are right to be wary of its growth.
The regulatory state is obviously subject to fierce debate. Conservatives are right when they point out that it has the capacity to overreach. But in theory, at least, the regulatory state constrains the “freedom” to harm others, which is an entirely good thing. Most of us don’t want companies to have the “liberty” to sell us defective products, tempt us with grossly misleading advertising, hire children to toil away in sweatshops, or spew toxic sludge into our air.
But let’s turn to the largely unexamined belief that more government leads to less personal liberty in relation to its other tasks. Maintaining our public spaces and infrastructure enhances our personal freedoms. Tomorrow, I can choose to go to a national park or a public beach that I know is safe and clean. I don’t drive a car, but thanks to our government-funded public transportation system, I can get around freely. I have a choice of paying the top rate to catch a cab-- a convenient private sector transaction-- but if I can’t afford that, I’m still able to take the (government-subsidized) bus. Having reliable delivery of fresh water to my home liberates me from the task of trudging to a river to fetch it by bucket, as people do in many places. It’d be hard to name something that added more to Americans’ individual freedom and choice than the establishment of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, a massive socialist undertaking by the standards of today’s conservatives.
And now we come to the social welfare state. Although one obviously can’t opt out of financing one’s share for it-- you have to pay your taxes-- it provides us with an enormous amount of individual liberty and freedom of choice. And I’m not just talking about the “freedom from want” that is common to Marxist thinking. Consider a few examples.
In the United States, it’s not uncommon for people to stay in dead-end jobs or crappy relationships for fear of losing their health coverage. In Canada or France or any other industrialized country, a citizen’s health care is his or her own. People in those countries have the very real freedom to quit that lousy job or dump that asshole without worrying about losing their coverage. In this example, Americans are slaves not to an overarching state, but to the way our private insurance system works.
Or consider the millions of people who want to go to college but can’t afford to pick up the tab for tuition and living expenses. Many still have the choice to get a higher education through federal education grants and subsidized student loans. That’s a personal choice that the private sector has no incentive to provide to citizens.
There are also programs that help people start new businesses or buy homes that they couldn’t otherwise afford. There are programs that offer them new job skills. Even if you’re dirt poor, you can still get into a program to help you ick a drug addiction. You can go to the library and read a book or search job listings on the Internet. All of these things give people real choices they wouldn’t otherwise have.
I could go on and on. The young researcher working on an NIH-funded science project, the farmer who has the choice to maintain his or her family’s tradition only because of agricultural subsidies, or the actor performing in an off-off-Broadway play that couldn’t be produced without a grant from the
National Endowment for the Arts-- all of these are living examples of people who have the freedom to pursue options that would be closed to them without Big Government “intervention” in the economy.
When progressives advocate for better public transportation, they’re trying to increase ordinary Americans’ freedom of movement. When they promote the wonders of municipal WiFi, they’re talking about the freedom to work anywhere in a city, anytime you want, without having to suck down a cup of stale Starbucks coffee.
Once again, governance all comes down to a question of priorities. And, in rough figures, we spend about a fifth of our federal budget on the social welfare state, around 5 percent on the regulatory state, and about 10 percent on the infrastructure state.
And the security state? It sucks up around two-thirds of the national budget.