Reagan’s deepest and most profound legacy to the right wing today, to the Tea Party, to the populist right is a selection of wry quips about the inefficacy and incompetence of government told with a grandfatherly charm. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem!” he said. “Government is the problem!” the placards at populist right wing gatherings now read.
This grotesque anti-government view regularly embraced and advocated by the populist right is incoherent, ignorant, and idiotic. It is the intellectual equivalent of blaming “The Man” or “Them” for all problems. While a (sometimes even paranoid) distrust of centralized power has always been part of American politics, the populist right today has elevated this sentiment to their core principle. It’s great efficiency as a rallying cry is that it papers over differences between the few but influential libertarian-minded who oppose government power on principle and the more numerous right wingers who see liberal government as an attack on their culture. What they both agree on (while a Democrat is in charge at least) is that the government is the problem.
This political coalition is animated primarily by anti-government rhetoric. While on some level it is a mere ideological trope, fervently believed only by the ignorant, used to rally the base to a revolutionary fervor and to create party unity, it has taken on the patina of truth in the eyes of so many it must be challenged.
Government is not inherently bad, inefficient, incompetent, destructive of liberty, or even liberal. Instead government is probably the single most influential force for good in our daily lives, acting in ways barely noticed even as its absence and failures would be and are noticed.
Friedrich Hayek, that great right wing theorist, said in his speech accepting the Nobel prize for economics, that the government had erred in attempting to engineer society. The proper role of government, Hayek believed, was that of a gardener tending her garden rather than of an engineer creating a machine. The populist right has bastardized this critique of Hayek’s and taken to demonizing the gardener while praising the garden as the greatest great thing since great things began to get greater (as Sean Hannity often says.)
What is lost in the populist right wing view is that our society, our economy, our nation, this greatest great thing ever, would not exist without the government tending it. I have been challenged – with apparent seriousness – to name anything the government ever did that was worthwhile.
In fact, the greatest product of the government is America itself – which, though like a garden has many individual parts, is given coherence by the gardener. The government has 4 main roles in shaping our nation:
1. Government acts as a check on corporations. Corporations exist to make profits – and as such externalize as many costs as they can; history has demonstrated that given the choice between doing the moral thing and doing the profitable thing, corporations will do the profitable one. This isn’t to say they are evil – it is merely to acknowledge their nature. Thus, given a choice between polluting the communal air and taking expensive steps to reduce that pollution, corporations have chosen to pollute. The costs of their actions are diffused while the benefits and profits are concentrated. Given the vibrancy of America’s market economy and the growing power of corporations, this is perhaps government’s most important role: to ensure that corporations have the incentive to make the moral choice. Most often this is accomplished with regulation, which though demonized by the populist right, is essential to America’s vibrant society and free market. Regulation is what allows us to open a can of beans without finding a human finger, to buy a standard mortgage and know our rights are still protected to some basic degree, to eat poultry without worrying too much over food poisoning, to buy a car and know it has met certain safety requirements, to breathe fresh air and to drink clean water. We can do all of this because of government regulation acting as a check on corporate greed.
2. Government underwrites social order. While the government is not present at every moment in our lives, it underwrites a certain type of order and undertakes to ensure that certain elements of a partially unspoken social bargain are upheld. For example, the government provides courts of law to resolve disputes and employs people to prosecute crimes. It has undertaken various steps to prevent terrorist attacks. It maintains regulations as above. When there is a crisis, the government assumes greater powers and responsibilities to protect the status quo and restore order.
3. Government makes long-term investments in the nation. While corporations and individuals control most investments, the government has, since its inception, funded various long-term projects from investments in infrastructure to space travel to education to medicine to military technology. These investments have led to everything from sending men to the moon to creating the internet.
4. Government provides certain services. From subsidies for the elderly (Social Security) to disability and unemployment benefits to disaster relief to cheap postage, to – soon – a transparent and standardized marketplace for health insurance – the government provides a selection of valuable services that are important yet under-served by the marketplace dominated by corporations looking for large, quick profits and non-profits that are often underfunded.
The internet itself is a great example of the role government plays in our lives. It was based on technology created by government scientists. It was enabled by government regulators who prevented AT&T from blocking access to their infrastructure which would have choked off the internet before it began. Access to the internet making it more widespread has been enabled by government programs as well as individual and corporate decisions. (For a neat list of how the government affects everyone on a daily basis, take a look at this article by Douglas J. Amy.)
This view of government is inherently liberal, even as the goods provided can be more broadly appreciated. Without government, there would be no rule of law, no free market, no corporations (which are government-created entities), no property, no freedom of speech or religion or assembly. Individuals without the protection of government have the freedom their power allows them to seize. With the careful use of government though, restrained and judicious, individuals can be empowered.
Liberalism, like the conservatism of William F. Buckley, Friedrich Hayek, Edmund Burke, Dwight Eisenhower, and even Ronald Reagan, is not about extending the role of government everywhere. It is the path between seizing the commanding heights of the economy and the anti-government hysteria of the populist right in which the government is used to empower individuals:
Liberalism in a market-state must exhibit a preference for the individual over the corporation and government and must empower individuals against bullying and coercive measures of these large institutions.
Sometimes that means the government must be constrained; and sometimes that means it must use its power to balance against other forces such as large corporations.
Government, used wisely, is good and the creator of free markets and the guardian of individual freedoms. This isn’t just a liberal idea or a conservative one. It is an American idea – indeed, the base of our American system.
[Image by Pittsford Patriot licensed under Creative Commons.]
*I have only been using the term, “government” here – but I mean, the federal government. I have used the terminology this way so it may better function as a response to the populist right which generally speaks of “the government” when they mean only the federal government.