Beginning with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964 — and certainly since Ronald Regan was elected in 1980 — a campaign has been mounted by conservatives to shrink the government and reduce its role in society. Based solely on the size of the federal budget it has not been a terribly successful campaign. The government, quite obviously, remains large and continues to spend trillions of dollars a year.
The campaign has been quite successful, however, in changing Americans’ attitudes about government. Indeed, for most of my lifetime, it has been accepted, almost as gospel, that government, to use Reagan’s word, is the problem.
However overbroad this all was — the problems facing America in 1981 were many and disparate and not all of our own making — there was a good deal of truth to Reagan’s critique. There was mismanagement and bureaucracy and all manner of mission creep in government by the 1970s which often caused government agencies to lose the plot and which prevented them from doing their jobs efficiently. Reagan and those who followed him — many of them Democrats, who eventually realized that Reagan’s message had the confidence of most of the nation — did a good deal to address those inefficiencies. Or, at the very least, to pay lip service to them in an effort to avoid an accusation of being a “Big Government Liberal,” which has proven to be an electoral liability for the past 33 years or so.
Yes, blaming big government for our problems turned out to be a very successful campaign. It was so successful that, for years, one need not even make much of an effort to shrink the size of government to proclaim oneself a Reagan-style conservative. Merely voicing anti-government sentiment and proposing modest overhauls here and there has been enough. People still think Reagan himself shrunk the government and reduced the federal deficit when he did exactly the opposite. Same with George W. Bush. In reality, the government has not shrunk overall in the past several decades, even if politicians still style themselves as budget-cutters as a matter of image and personal brand. Dime store Reagans, the lot of them.
In recent years, however, going after the government has not been a matter of mere rhetoric. It’s increasingly becoming a concrete policy objective. The idea of government being the problem has morphed into the notion of government being the enemy. Rather than address the government’s flaws and govern more efficiently, the goal of conservatives has been to dismantle the government. Or at the very least to severely hobble it.
This is evident from places where far right, Tea Party conservatives have taken power such as Kansas, where Sam Brownback and the Republican controlled legislature have run the state into the ground, essentially by design, via tax cuts and the elimination of government services. It is likewise evident in the budget outline offered by Donald Trump on Wednesday evening, which appears calculated to carry out the nihilistic fever dreams of his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon to effect the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The budget outline represents a wholesale slashing of domestic programs, and will likely be followed up by proposed tax cuts and increases in military spending which will starve all government agencies — apart from the Pentagon — even further.
Ronald Reagan talked a big game about slashing government, but until recently there was an acknowledgement by those in power that there are a range of state functions that are legitimate and, in many cases, preferable, for governments to deliver. Trump and those who would fall in with him are rejecting that idea. They have bought the idea that government is the enemy. Some shadowy monster in the fog, to use a friend’s phrase, that must be slain.
This is madness. The government is not our enemy. The government is, by definition, us. It is an instrument of the people and a manifestation of our will. And it is controlled by the people, even if we forget that from time to time.
The government is a means to a host of valuable ends. At least if one agrees that the well-being of the nation and the well-being of its citizens is desirable. If one grants that we want our environment to be healthy and clean. If one agrees that people should not go hungry in the richest country in the world and that people should not die because they cannot afford necessary medical treatment. If one agrees that we want our children to be educated and our workforce prepared for the challenges of the present and the future. If one agrees that our workplaces should be safe. If one agrees that our economy should be vibrant. That the rich should not be permitted to take advantage of the poor and the strong should not be able to take advantage of the weak.
When I’ve voiced this sentiment in the past, many conservatives have responded by saying that, while those are all laudable ends, they are not the business or the responsibility of the government. Rather, they are the responsibility of individual citizens, who must pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That, when they cannot, it should fall to charities, churches, foundations and the private sector to aid them. The market, I am told, and the goodness of people who wish to help their fellow man, should, can and will help those in need.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows that this is ideological nonsense. We’ve tried such an approach before — think of the 19th century and the free market dominated runup to the Great Depression — and it simply did not work.
The bootstraps, the charities, the churches, the foundations and the good hearts of the wealthy, taken together, proved to be an abject failure in the face of the challenges of the industrialized world and an utter disaster once the calamity of the Depression struck. With the private sector and the philanthropy of industrialists and churches as the bulwark, we had child labor, abhorrent levels of infant mortality and polluted waterways, streets and skies. We had poorhouses and debtors prisons. We had public health crises and wholesale crop failures. We had a brand of unfettered capitalism that led to depressions, recessions and corruption.
Conservatives often accuse liberals of being starry-eyed idealists, but the level of fantasy and delusion it takes to believe that we can address the problems faced by a nation of 300 million people by returning to the approach we took to such matters at the turn of the 20th century, when our population was far smaller and our economy and our challenges far less complex, is off the charts.
We still must deliver prosperity, health, safety and all of the other desirable ends upon which civilized people agree. We cannot, however, depend on some fantasy version of a government-free society to provide it. We’ve tried that before. It did not work then and it will not work now. While I want to believe in the goodness of my fellow man, people, when given a choice, will not be charitable enough en masse to address these societal problems. To meet challenges that impact an entire nation, it takes the mobilization of the entire nation. It’s simply a matter of complexity and scale.
Doing so means searching for the appropriate balance between public and private efforts while acknowledging that both public and private efforts are legitimate and effective when properly supported and properly deployed. It means that it is time to stop pretending that government is the enemy and acknowledge that government, in many cases, is the most effective means of delivering the ends we all desire. Mostly because, as we have seen, the private sector has no interest in delivering many of them.
As it stands, the hard turn to toward the private sector we’ve taken as a country since 1980 — first rhetorically, and now in practice — has led to suffering and inequality on a level not seen since before the New Deal and is quickly exacerbating the problems we face as a nation. It is time to restore some of the balance we saw when America was, without question, the leader of the world in prosperity and freedom.