The Talent Show has a very interesting counterpoint to my previous article on Lewis Lapham calling conservatism ‘utopian anarchism’. He points out to a Thomas Frank commentary that has this to say:
Time was you could always count on conservatives to scream for a balanced federal budget. Not anymore. What they want these days is tax cuts and the budget be damned.
You’ve no doubt heard that this year’s tax cuts will mainly be enjoyed by the rich; that three-quarters of them will go to society’s wealthiest fifth. This is true but describing them this way misses an important point: The reason the Administration wants to do away with dividend taxes, estate taxes, and all the rest of it is not just to reward the wealthy but to de-fund government, to pull the rug out from under the New Deal social order once and for all.
"Government is not the solution to our problem," Ronald Reagan famously said in 1981. "Government is the problem." And today the phrase reverberates across the years echoed by a mighty chorus : Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, North, Gingrich, Barr, DeLay, Heyworth, Graham, Santorum..
Yesterday’s far right is today’s mainstream and the belief that government was merely misguided has given way to the belief that government is unredeemable. That the bureaucrats who staff it are elitist, un-American, treasonable.
Now destroying government would be tough to pull off if you had to break down each job that the government does and prove that we’d be better off without it. It’s far easier to just pull the money and let nature take its course. Five years from now we’ll all no doubt be reading bestsellers about the menace that budget deficits pose to our grandkids and our legislators will have no choice but to pack up and turn off the lights.
Massive deficits are great because they force government downsizing down the road and this is why they’ve become the signature gesture of Republican administrations, from Ronald Reagan to George Bush Sr. and now to his son. The true goal is not to "jump start" consumer spending or even to spark entrepreneurship, but to throw a wrench into the works of this despised institution : To jam the locomotive into reverse, throw something heavy on the throttle, and jump for it.
This concept that the Republicans want to "end the New Deal" (despite the fact that most of the New Deal ended decades ago) is all too common among the left in America. If that is true, then why has the CBO estimated that discretionary spending has increased by 15% in Bush’s two years in office. The federal budget has grown by $222 billion in the same period. Outlays on social programs like Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, and other services have increased from 11.5% of national GDP to 12.7% in the past two years. Some conservatives are even criticizing Bush for spending too much. While tax cuts will supposedly cause Washington to cut spending, that’s unlikely to happen. As happened in the 1980’s Congress will simply put more on credit.
If the Republicans are trying to ‘de-fund’ the government, they’re doing a piss-poor job of it. The total amount of federal spending is increasing year by year, and defense spending is only a fraction of the increase. The vast majority of the increases are in social spending.
If anything, I wish Mr. Frank were right. The size and scope of government has done little to rectify the problems of America. In fact, it’s never in the interest of a government bureaucrat to solve a problem. If problems are solved, they are no longer needed. So government is always looking for more "problems" to solve – which is why the federal government continues to grow at an alarming rate.
The faith of liberals in government is based on the irrational idea that government is somehow more morally pure than the free market. That the free market is the domain of ‘robber barons’ and that government somehow is free from self-interest and outright greed. Throughout history, this utopian notion has never once been proven to be true. Government is no less self-interested than the free market. Unlike the market, however, government is not under the pressures of efficiency, competition, or responsiveness. Government programs are rarely held to account for their success or failure. In fact, even if a government program is an abject failure, there’s always a constituency willing to fight to the death to ensure it goes on. The idea of reform rarely touches the darkest recesses of the federal bureaucracy, which is why we still pay a phone tax designed to pay for the Spanish-American War.
This is a system in which the efforts of millions of working Americans go to pay for a system where failure is rewarded as much as success and sometimes more, where responsibility is rarely exercised, and which even those with the best of intentions quickly find themselves mired in a sea of incompetence and red tape.
The reason why liberals fight so hard for these programs is not because they do good. Whether or not they do seems to be largely immaterial, and despite years of expanding welfare states there appears to be no end to the cries of ‘unfairness!’ and ‘exploitation!’ from the nation’s chattering classes. If every person in America lived in mansions, eat caviar, and weighed 300 pounds there would be those who would point out that the ‘rich’ have slightly bigger mansions, get to eat imported caviar rather than domestic, and weight a few pounds more. Chances are they’d get a nice government agency to do something about it.
This is a system that does not work. It is a system that harms those whom it is supposed to help. Fostering more and more dependency on the paternal hand of government is only the path to slavery. There is room for some social welfare – even a dyed-in-the-wool conservative like myself will grant the need for there to be a "safety net" for those that have no other choice. However, conservative is about realizing that when a safety net becomes a crutch freedom quickly fades. I have read more than enough history of governments using social benefits as a way of controlling the population and keeping them fat and docile while government kleptocrats robbed them blind. From ancient Rome to modern Europe, the bureaucracy has been a greater threat to human liberty than any 19th Century robber baron.
I believe C.S. Lewis said it best in describing the fundamental conservative realization of the difference between private enterprise and government:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
That is exactly the kind of threat that must be met with eternal vigilence. Mr. Frank is right – government is viewed as a threat by conservatives. The thing is, government is and always has been a threat to liberty, and this country was based on the idea that only a system that restrained government could minimize that threat. I have far more faith in the ability of the individual than I do in government, and if that makes me heartless and inconsiderate, then so be it. However, if there is one criticism to be made of the Bush Administration it is not that they are de-funding government, it is that they are not de-funding government.