Quote of the Day: “Conservatives and ‘Limited Government'”


Tim Lee adds a much-needed dose of sanity to the anti-big-government movement.  Full post here.

Is the Tea Party “the most dynamic anti-big government political movement in modern American politics?” I think it’s helpful here to unpack the concept of “anti-big government,” because the right uses it in a peculiar and rather perverse fashion.

In the conservative (and fusionist) worldview, government activities are evaluated using a simplistic “size of government” metric that treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used. This has some unfortunate results. It means that cutting children’s health care spending is just as good as cutting a dollar from subsidies for wealthy corporations. And since wealthy corporations typically have lobbyists and poor children don’t, the way this works out in practice is that conservative politicians staunchly oppose the former while letting the latter slide.

Worse, mainstream conservatives give programs involving the military and law enforcement a free pass. Conservatives vociferously (and correctly) oppose giving the FCC expanded power over the Internet, but they actively supported the NSA’s much more comprehensive and intrusive scheme of domestic surveillance. Conservatives support a massive expansion of government power at our southern border to restrict the freedom of Mexican migrants. They seem unconcerned by the fact that we have more people in government-run prisons than any other nation on Earth.

This distinction makes no sense. When American soldiers gun down Iraqi civilians and blow up a van that comes to rescue the survivors, that’s a government program. When a SWAT team conducts a military-style raid on the home of an innocent Maryland mayor and kills his dogs, that’s a government program too. Obviously, law enforcement and national defense are important functions of government, but these highly coercive government programs should be the subject of more public scrutiny, not less.

In-depth investigation of plutocratic interests behind the Tea Party and global warming denialism movements here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: “Conservatives and ‘Limited Government'”

  1. Prof. Mondo

    Mr. Lee makes some interesting assumptions. First of all, he seems to conflate anti-big-government with anarchism, which is a reductio ad absurdum approach that I would suggest is less than helpful. As for his effort to link corporate welfare to individual welfare, I would suggest that a significant portion of that (GM, for instance) is in fact done to pay off such friends of big government as the UAW. In any case, however, I agree that corporate welfare is a bad thing — there’s such a thing as creative destruction. And while I’m not a tea partier, the ones I know found the corporate bailouts to be reprehensible.

    His next paragraph ignores some interesting points as well. The U.S. constitution calls for the Feds to “provide for the common defense,” which is an affirmative course of action. On the other hand, it merely says the government should “promote the general welfare,” which is less active. For the distinction and its ramifications, see Madison. I also didn’t realize that it was bad for the citizens of a country to want immigrants to follow the rules. For example, when I visited Canada a couple of months ago, I carried a passport, stood in lines, filled out forms, answered questions, and all that good stuff, both for myself and the spouse and spawn. I didn’t see this as an unjust restriction of my freedom — I viewed it as following the laws of a place where I was to be a guest. I feel badly for the Mexican migrants Lee mentions. However, that doesn’t confer upon them the right to ignore our laws. The burden is on Lee to explain why Mexican migrants should not be subject to US law _when entering the US_, and why expecting that is a bad thing.

    The size of our prison population, though troubling, is a reflection of the fact that we commit more crimes. Some of those crimes perhaps shouldn’t be criminalized (e.g., the “War on Drugs”), but for a variety of cultural reasons, many of our people choose to exercise their freedom to step off cliffs, and find their options considerably narrower after that. (Whew, finally a Frye reference!) For more on this, google the Butterfield effect.

    Next, he seems to argue something along these lines:
    1) People screw up.
    2) Soldiers and law enforcers are people.
    3) Therefore soldiers and law enforcers screw up.
    Fair enough, but to proceed from that to the idea that supporting law enforcement and national defense over social spending (back to “provide for” vs. “promote”) is somehow declaring them immune from scrutiny is a leap I don’t think he’s adequately made. In fact, soldiers and law enforcers are subject to the very scrutiny he calls for — hence the fact that my best friend and frequent commenter the Major has spent much of his military law career as a defense attorney. But the larger issue here is that Lee conflates saying that defense is more important than social spending with blank-eyed idolatry of the security apparatus, and I don’t buy that, as a quick look at say, _Reason_ magazine will show.

    Moving away from Lee, but speaking of “plutocratic interests” and political activism, I offer a two-word rejoinder: George Soros.

  2. Michael Happy Post author

    George Soros is of course the bugbear of the right, as though it were an offense that liberals should have money too. First, his donations are transparent. Second, his political activities aside, he’s primarily a philanthropist who’s given away billions promoting “social justice” against what would otherwise be his own profit motive. The same cannot be said of people like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers who circulate disinformation and promote mob politics to enhance their business interests, whatever the social cost.

    Plus, there’s one George Soros — which is why his name must always be invoked by the right as though he were the world’s single evil genius. Murdoch and the Koch brothers, on the other hand, are powerhouses in a vast network of self-serving corporate interests which can purchase the political influence that others cannot. As Tim Lee points out, it’s the poor whose aid is cut before corporate subsidies. Meanwhile, Fox News is what Vice President Henry Wallace warned of as the unique brand of “American Fascism” whose aim is to “poison the channels of public information.” The reason for doing so at this point is self-evident.

    The invocation of “creative destruction” is always distressing because it suggests there is no unacceptable human cost. As Frye says: “famine is a social problem, but it’s the individual who starves.” It is difficult to believe that there is no pathetic appeal that can get us past ideological abstractions to the effects upon real, live, flesh and blood human beings, starting with the millions of unemployed for whom there is only one shitty job for every five of them. Don’t they come first? Ought we not as a community to be demanding immediate and meaningful aid to them, whatever the plutocrats and the ideologues say? Isn’t that the best measure of our humanity, and not the amount of money we’re allowed to amass while others suffer within earshot of our hearing? The issue ultimately is “primary concern,” and as Frye says in Words with Power, the secondary concerns of ideology tend to be treated as though they were primary. We are, he warned, living in a time when “primary concerns must become primary, or else.” That “or else” is nicely illustrated by the hundreds of millions of dollars the Koch brothers invest in global warning denialism. At that point, the profit motive is merely nihilistic.

    This raises the obvious question, Why is big government a problem but big business is not? Such as the big business interests that drove the financial markets into the ground at full speed because they could? Because they had no incentive to “self-correct”? No less a person than Alan Greenspan admitted that what occurred in 2008 overturned a lifetime of belief in the way the markets work.

    Frye often reminds us that society is not merely an aggregate of individuals but is manifested through them. Many of those individuals through no fault of their own will find themselves disadvantaged and in need. It’s not enough to excuse human suffering as though it were an unfortunate by-product of certain “necessities” like “creative destruction.” That kind of fatalism is the mark of ideologues everywhere, and however ingenious the ideology, it will always fall short of its declared intentions because it can never be specific enough in its concerns. Government, meanwhile, is an instrument of human will which can promote the common good. In a democracy at least, its lapses are our lapses, and our lapses can always be addressed if addressing them is our priority.

  3. Prof. Mondo

    My point in invoking Soros is simply that there are Blofelds on both sides (see also Ted Turner and the Kennedys). While I don’t watch Fox News, I think they’re remarkable primarily in that so much of the traditional media skews left, especially when it comes to flagships (Time, Newsweek, NBC, NYT, etc.). The problem isn’t so much that they’re conservative, but that they have no competition for conservatives. They’re the 250-kg gorilla, but only because there’s nothing else in their niche of the ecosystem.

    As you and I have discussed in e-mail, I agree that crony capitalism is a problem on both sides of the aisle. And again, I would argue that it’s reached the point at which those big businesses favor increased government intervention, not only because of direct payoffs like the bailouts, but because that intervention raises barriers to entry for smaller businesses, thus reducing competition. If you’re Wal-Mart, regulation is simply a cost of doing business, and you take it out on the employees and customers. If you’re Michael Happy’s Frye-d Foods, it’s a dealbreaker. Either way, the little guy is screwed.

    Finally, I do tend toward the fatalism you call the mark of the ideologue — I plead genetics, as we Mondos tend to be a rather fatalistic lot (must be the Presbyterianism), but also see it as the realization that human nature does not appear to change. The Romantic models of governance based on the New Man have foundered on the rocks of human nature from the Committee for Public Safety to the Kulaks to the Cultural Revolution to the Khmer Rouge. The reality of history’s lessons must be acknowledged until Milton’s Greater Man shows up to change the game, at which point we move to the apocalyptic.

    I agree that human suffering can’t be excused as an unfortunate byproduct. However, I believe that top-down models of alleviating that suffering have not only failed, but failed in spectacular fashion. Hence, I am skeptical of such models. I tend to agree with Lewis, who says that the Kingdom of God will be considerably to the left of what many folks were expecting. But I think attempting to create such a kingdom absent divine intervention is doomed. Until then, I do what I believe I can as an individual, a dad, and a teacher.

    And in that spirit, I leave you with a joke:

    A man walks outside and sees an ant lying on its back with its six little legs waving frantically. He asks the any why it is in the position it’s in, and the ant replies, “I have to be ready to catch the sky if it falls.”

    The man says, “That’s ridiculous! The sky is enormous. If it were to fall, you’d be crushed… well, like an ant. Why bother?”

    The ant shrugs its first set of legs and says, “I do what I can.”

    And so do we, my Frygean brother.

  4. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    While Presbyteriansim is no excuse for false equivalency and that penchant for conflation and exaggeration I find typical of the new right (all regulation hurts the little guy, and have you heard the one about the Khmer Rouge?), Prof Mondo is to be congratulated for his post on William Topaz McGonagall.

    Perhaps a Frye blog would be a further venue for such posts! Anyone who name-drops Julia Ann Moore and Ed Wood in two consecutive sentences deserves special recognition.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *