Everyone knows that Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” But as Ramesh Ponnuru recently pointed out, there is a “less famous yet crucial beginning of that sentence”: “In our present crisis.”
Conservatives rightly hate nanny-state government and big-spending bureaucracy. But too often, the word “government” has become unfair shorthand for what is actually only bad or oppressive government.
Conservatives aren’t anarchists, after all. We don’t want Big Brother, but none of us should want to live in a Hobbesian state where every person is absolutely and entirely for himself, either. Instead, we believe in ordered liberty via limited government.
Certainly, the size and scope of government has increased over the years. But still, we shouldn’t conflate all government with bad government. We need a functioning state, and yes, there is such a thing as a government that is too weak.
This is a lesson that goes back to our founding. And it’s one conservatives should appreciate. Judging from their colonial garb and tri-cornered hats, Tea Party activists are fond of the Constitution and its Founders. So you might expect that they, of all people, would appreciate the importance of having a government that isn’t laughably weak.
As Baylor professor and Patrick Henry author Thomas Kidd tells me, “Most of the major Founders became convinced that Americans needed a stronger national government to coordinate trade policy and protect against domestic and foreign threats.”
Under the Articles of Confederation, the government was impotent. “Major decisions — declaring war and signing treaties — needed the approval of nine states,” writes Richard Brookhiser in his book James Madison. Congress couldn’t even tax, and “as a result, the United States was perpetually broke,” Brookhiser adds.
To be sure, some patriots, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, opposed the Constitution precisely because they feared big government. But as Kidd points out, “the majority of the best-known Founders believed that the new republic needed a bigger, stronger government for the United States to survive and compete on the world stage.”
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote Madison, who (in fairness) added, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
So, a natural question: What should a limited government do?
For starters, preserve law and order, ensure the rule of law, enforce contracts, provide for our defense — and yes, control the border. (I’m also partial to clean water, but that’s just me.)
Max Weber said the government has a “monopoly on legitimate violence in society.” This is needed to enforce law and order. Otherwise, whoever has the biggest gun — or the most brothers — takes your property.
“Government is the most common form of hierarchy,” Robert Kaplan recently noted. “It is a government that monopolizes the use of violence in a given geographical space, thereby preventing anarchy. To quote Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher, only where it is possible to punish the wicked can right and wrong have any practical meaning, and that requires ‘some coercive power.’”
But government functions don’t just keep us safe, they also make us prosperous. Sure, overregulation can be a job killer. But consider the extreme alternative. If you believe that someone could steal your business if he wants to, then you are much less likely to start one. If you believe that someone can break a contract with you — or steal your invention — without fear of punishment, that might make it less likely that you will go into business or to invest in research and development.
In their 2012 book Why Nations Fail, economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson provide a largely free market argument for why some nations succeed. For example, Acemoglu and Robinson fault protectionist policies instituted to avoid the process of creative destruction as a primary reason some nations fail.
But interestingly, they also frequently cite a lack of a strong central government as a prime reason nations fail. For example, the authors lament Somalia’s “lack of any kind of political centralization, or state centralization, and its inability to enforce even the minimal amount of law and order to support economic activity, trade, or even basic security of its citizens.”
I can’t imagine that any conservatives who decry government would prefer this sort of extreme chaos to our current, albeit imperfect, government.
So maybe the answer is to be more specific about our concerns with government. Attempting to do just that, Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan distinguished between the productive state, the protective state, and the redistributive state.
Essentially, the productive state would constitute infrastructure like roads and bridges, the protective state would encompass the police, criminal justice, etc., and the redistributive state is obviously the entitlement state.
While most conservatives concede that we need some social safety net, they are mostly worried about the out-of-control growth of the redistributive state. And yet, too seldom is that distinction made. Instead, the criticism is usually directed at “government.”
When it comes to government, a lot of conservatives are probably too obsessed with size. Grover Norquist famously wants to shrink government to such a small size that you can drown it in a bathtub.
But I’m not sure most Americans want that. And trying to force it via draconian cuts doesn’t work, especially if they don’t address the specific problem, such as the need for entitlement reform. ”You can’t make a fat man skinny by tightening his belt,” observed John Maynard Keynes.
Whether you’re a conservative who cares about preserving law and order, or a free marketer who appreciates the importance the rule of law plays in providing confidence and incentives to entrepreneurs, you’re a fan of government. Stop pretending otherwise.
By: Matt K. Lewis, The Week, May 9, 2013
One summer when I was in college, I worked for a tiny lobbying firm, most of whose clients were disease-related. If the firm wasn’t able to get you increased funding for research into your disease, at the very least it could get a friendly member of Congress to introduce a proclamation about it. Framed on the office walls were documents declaring the first week in June to be Copious Earwax Awareness Week or November to be Toenail Fungus Month.
The government declares lots of national days of this and weeks of that, most of which go unnoticed. Today, however, is the National Day of Prayer, in which, that pesky establishment clause notwithstanding, the federal government encourages you to get down on your knees and implore your deity to deliver whatever you happen to lack, or to be merciful toward those he might otherwise smite. Don’t confuse it with the National Prayer Breakfast; that’s an entirely separate national prayer event. Here‘s Barack Obama’s proclamation of the day, though beyond that I don’t think the government is doing much to honor it. That slack is picked up by the quasi-official National Day of Prayer Task Force, a decidedly evangelical Christian group chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson. This year’s honorary chair is California megachurch pastor Greg Laurie, whose participation led to protests from gay-rights groups unhappy with Laurie’s particular view of sin and sexuality. Laurie will be leading prayer events on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon today. The theme of this year’s events is “Pray for America,” the message being that everything is pretty much going to hell (so to speak) in our country, and the only thing that can get us back on the right track is Jesus.
In the face of all this government sponsorship of prayer, the rather less influential secular humanist movement has declared today the National Day of Reason. They had to declare it themselves, because unlike the National Day of Prayer, the government wasn’t going to get involved with them. So feel free, if you swing that way, to take a moment today to consider all that reason and science have done for us.
I’ll stop before my impulse to snark gets the better of me, but I would like to note something for my religious friends, especially the Christians: Next time you want to say you’re “oppressed” because people are saying that there may be a few areas we can keep religion out of, like science class, or that it might be better not to assume that everyone is a Christian but instead be sensitive to people who believe in gods other than yours or no god at all, consider that those of us who don’t believe in an almighty deity tolerate stuff like the National Day of Prayer all the time. We don’t much like it, but we almost always just let it slide. The government makes our kids stand up and declare that we’re “one nation, under God,” our money says “In God We Trust,” Congress starts every day with a prayer, and official sponsorship of religious events is everywhere. On the other hand, while there are lots of places where discussion of people’s religious beliefs is excluded, there is nowhere—nowhere—where the government explicitly affirms and honors the beliefs of those who don’t believe in god. There’s no government-sponsored “There Is No God Day” with White House proclamations and Pentagon gatherings.
And that’s as it should be. It’s not government’s job to tell you it agrees with your metaphysical views. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
11Yes, technically kids in public schools don’t have to say the Pledge of Allegiance if they don’t want to, but peer pressure being what it is, few feel comfortable abstaining.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 2, 2013
“A Government That Can’t Govern”: What Happens When One Party Is Perfectly Happy To Stay In The Minority
Over the weekend, our friend Jonathan Bernstein wrote an interesting post discussing the point, not uncommon on the left but nonetheless true, that the problem with our politics today isn’t “polarization” or “Washington” but the Republican Party. His argument is basically that the GOP is caught in a series of overlapping vicious cycles that not only make governing impossible for everyone, but become extraordinarily difficult to break out of. As the base grows more extreme, it demands more ideological purity from primary candidates, leading to more ideological officeholders for whom obstruction of governance is an end in itself, marginalizing moderates and leaving no one with clout in the party to argue for a more sensible course, and in each subsequent election those demanding more and more purity become the loudest voices, and on and on. John Hunstman would probably tell you that he would have had a better chance of beating Barack Obama than Mitt Romney (who spent so much time pandering to the right) did, but nobody in the GOP cares what John Huntsman thinks.
There’s one point Bernstein makes that shows just how serious this situation is: “Perhaps the biggest cause is the perverse incentives created by the conservative marketplace. Simply put, a large portion of the party, including the GOP-aligned partisan press and even many politicians, profit from having Democrats in office. Typically, democracies ‘work’ in part because political parties have strong incentives to hold office, which causes them once they win to try hard to enact public policy that keeps people satisfied with their government. That appears to be undermined for today’s Republicans.” It’s often noted that some people on each side benefit when the other side is in power. For instance, magazines like this one. When there’s a Republican in the White House, liberal magazines tend to get more subscribers, as liberals get angry at the President and become more interested in reading about everything he’s doing wrong. The same is true of conservative magazines when there’s a Democratic president. The boosting of certain people’s fortunes when the other side is in power stretches through ideological media to some political figures. For instance, Dennis Kucinich became a national figure not long after September 11 when he started giving speeches criticizing the War on Terror, tapping into the frustration many people on the left felt.
So George W. Bush was very good for Dennis Kucinich, and you’ll notice that once Barack Obama was elected, Kucinich faded from view. But Kucinich never had the ability to push the Democratic party along a particular path. The people on the right who benefit from being out of power, on the other hand, are much more influential within the party. And today, there are many people within the GOP who like the current situation pretty well. It isn’t that they have no governing agenda that they’d implement if given the chance, but just obstructing the Democratic agenda is going quite well for them. Rush Limbaugh and Rand Paul and even Mitch McConnell are perfectly happy with how things are going for them right now. The basic urge to get power runs up against all the incentives now built into the GOP that make getting power more difficult. Officeholders could change their tune a bit and make the Republican party more popular, but they’re not going to do it if it means they’re more likely to get booted in a primary.
So we could find ourselves endlessly trapped in the situation we’re in now. Democrats keep winning presidential elections because the Republican Party is repellent to a majority of Americans. The geographic distribution of the American population nevertheless makes it possible for Republicans to hold on to the House, and at least control enough of the Senate to grind things to a halt by filibustering everything (and Democrats are too frightened to change the filibuster rules). With the exception of the occasional bill here and there that Republicans get intimidated into letting go through, governing pretty much ceases, with the exception of whatever the President can accomplish via regulation and executive agency actions (those agencies that the Republicans don’t manage to hamstring, that is). And there you have it: a government that can’t govern.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 8, 2013
Imagine a plot to undermine the government of the United States, to destroy much of its capacity to do the public’s business, and to sow distrust among the population.
Imagine further that the plotters infiltrate Congress and state governments, reshape their districts to give them disproportionate influence in Washington, and use the media to spread big lies about the government.
Finally, imagine they not only paralyze the government but are on the verge of dismantling pieces of it.
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But take a look at what’s been happening in Washington and many state capitals since Tea Party fanatics gained effective control of the Republican Party, and you’d be forgiven if you see parallels.
Tea Party Republicans are crowing about the “sequestration” cuts beginning today (Friday). “This will be the first significant tea party victory in that we got what we set out to do in changing Washington,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), a Tea Partier who was first elected in 2010.
Sequestration is only the start. What they set out to do was not simply change Washington but eviscerate the U.S. government — “drown it in the bathtub,” in the words of their guru Grover Norquist – slashing Social Security and Medicare, ending worker protections we’ve had since the 1930s, eroding civil rights and voting rights, terminating programs that have helped the poor for generations, and making it impossible for the government to invest in our future.
Sequestration grew out of a strategy hatched soon after they took over the House in 2011, to achieve their goals by holding hostage the full faith and credit of the United States – notwithstanding the Constitution’s instruction that the public debt of the United States “not be questioned.”
To avoid default on the public debt, the White House and House Republicans agreed to harsh and arbitrary “sequestered” spending cuts if they couldn’t come up with a more reasonable deal in the interim. But the Tea Partiers had no intention of agreeing to anything more reasonable. They knew the only way to dismember the federal government was through large spending cuts without tax increases.
Nor do they seem to mind the higher unemployment their strategy will almost certainly bring about. Sequestration combined with January’s fiscal cliff deal is expected to slow economic growth by 1.5 percentage points this year – dangerous for an economy now crawling at about 2 percent. It will be even worse if the Tea Partiers refuse to extend the government’s spending authority, which expires March 27.
A conspiracy theorist might think they welcome more joblessness because they want Americans to be even more fearful and angry. Tea Partiers use fear and anger in their war against the government – blaming the anemic recovery on government deficits and the government’s size, and selling a poisonous snake-oil of austerity economics and trickle-down economics as the remedy.
They likewise use the disruption and paralysis they’ve sown in Washington to persuade Americans government is necessarily dysfunctional, and politics inherently bad. Their continuing showdowns and standoffs are, in this sense, part of the plot.
What is the President’s response? He still wants a so-called “grand bargain” of “balanced” spending cuts (including cuts in the projected growth of Social Security and Medicare) combined with tax increases on the wealthy. So far, though, he has agreed to a gross imbalance — $1.5 trillion in cuts to Republicans’ $600 billion in tax increases on the rich.
The President apparently believes Republicans are serious about deficit reduction, when in fact the Tea Partiers now running the GOP are serious only about dismembering the government.
And he seems to accept that the budget deficit is the largest economic problem facing the nation, when in reality the largest problem is continuing high unemployment (some 20 million Americans unemployed or under-employed), declining real wages, and widening inequality. Deficit reduction now or in the near-term will only make these worse.
Besides, the deficit is now down to about 5 percent of GDP – where it was when Bill Clinton took office. It is projected to mushroom in later years mainly because healthcare costs are expected to rise faster than the economy is expected to grow, and the American population is aging. These trends have little or nothing to do with government programs. In fact, Medicare is far more efficient than private health insurance.
I suggest the President forget about a “grand bargain.” In fact, he should stop talking about the budget deficit and start talking about jobs and wages, and widening inequality – as he did in the campaign. And he should give up all hope of making a deal with the Tea Partiers who now run the Republican Party.
Instead, the President should let the public see the Tea Partiers for who they are — a small, radical minority intent on dismantling the government of the United States. As long as they are allowed to dictate the terms of public debate they will continue to hold the rest of us hostage to their extremism.
By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, February 28, 2013
For all its current shortcomings, the United States government remains intact, and the issues it faces are not as resistant to compromise as slavery, which means that 2011 was not as bad as 1860, a year that nearly ended the existence of the United States.
In 1860, “the government” failed on four distinct levels: a major political party, the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the electorate. At the Democratic National Convention in April, delegates from 10 states walked out in response to the nomination of a presidential candidate and the adoption of a platform of which they disapproved, and formed a breakaway party. That break severed one of few remaining national institutions, and opened the way for the victory of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Before Lincoln took office, seven states left the Union.
Neither the legislative nor the executive branches responded well. An incendiary public letter decrying compromise issued by southern congressmen on Dece. 13, 1860, made it obvious that congressional attempts at compromise were exercises in futility. President James Buchanan simply counted days until he could get out of Washington, while members of his Cabinet, most egregiously Secretary of War John Floyd, actively aided secessionists.
Then as now, elected officials in Washington do not have a corner on blame, for if “We the people” in our Constitution’s preamble means anything, then government is not a faraway them; it is us. The electorate shares responsibility. Self-government works if and only if all parties abide by election results whether or not they like them. If a dissatisfied part of the electorate decides it need not be bound by election results, then self-government loses all legitimacy, and the American experiment in self-government fails, which was what Lincoln meant when he explained that secession in response to election results presented “to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy–a government of the people, by the same people” could survive.
We may shake our heads in frustration, but we do not face issues as essentially impervious to compromise as slavery, nor do we seriously question the government’s survival, which reminds us that things could be worse. But 1860 should also remind us that if we are to look for the sources of our government’s problems, then “We the People” cannot exempt ourselves from some of the scrutiny.
By: Chandra Manning, U. S. News and World Report, December 30, 2011