At a party the other day a male relative repeated a familiar sentiment–“Government is the problem. We don’t need any government except the military.” Everyone around him kind of nodded and the party continued. Meanwhile, I wanted to bang my head against the door frame, repeatedly. The fact that this lazy libertarian meme has gained such acceptance is deeply disheartening.
Conservatives have won the battle of the hearts and minds with this simple idea of government as the problem. The role the federal government plays is extremely complicated and it depends on which part of the government they’re describing, so it’s impossible to counter argue this without going into extensive detail. Meanwhile, peoples eyes glaze over and the conservative argument has triumphed again.
This libertarian/conservative narrative that government is the enemy has been years in the making, a triumph of business propaganda. It used to be conventional wisdom that federal government and its social programs helped the average American. Not anymore. Meanwhile, the federal government has changed dramatically in ways not really understood by the same average American. During the long post war economic boom a strong federal government helped ensure a more equal contest between workers and corporations. This concept has been turned on its head. Instead of serving the interests of the vast majority, the federal government has increasingly been subverted into serving corporate interests and their wealthy shareholders.
Libertarians/conservatives claim to hate a vast bureaucratic federal government and to pine for small simple state, however conservatives are only against some parts of the government. As the guy at the party articulated, they are firmly behind the neoconservative imperial project, with unlimited military spending. And, as the comments following the uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson demonstrate, conservatives really, really like the police. Conservatives are, after all, authoritarian and reactionary. The modern conservative project in the US has essentially been about reducing taxes of rich people. They basically hate any government regulation that gets in the way of profits, with an almost pathological hatred of taxes levied against their heroic job creators.
So what factors besides business propaganda changed the attitudes of Americans about the role that the federal government played in their lives? Examining modern US history it’s clear that what changed this was the Civil Right Act of 1964. White people were cool with the federal government taxing and spending on programs that benefitted them. However, once African-Americans became the beneficiary of this federal largess, there was a backlash that was expertly harnessed to pursue conservative policies.
1964 was a pivotal year for the rise of modern conservatism. This was, of course, when the Civil Rights Act passed, and outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and ended the racial segregation that had existed for so long in the South. To southerners, this was an enormous betrayal by the Democratic party, especially from President Lyndon Johnson, who was himself a Southern Democrat. The federal government had overstepped in many minds, and this was an opening for the small government conservatives to once again capture the minds of common working class people.
In a truly opportunistic fashion, the Republican Party decided to exploit the racial fears and prejudices of much of the populace, and the Southern Strategy was born. State’s rights had been trampled on by the federal government, so the thinking went, and in 1964, Barry Goldwater ran an election based on anti-New Deal and states’ rights policies. His coded racism was successful, and it earned the votes from five southern states and his own, though he lost every other state to Johnson. Though not as aggressively conservative as Goldwater, Richard Nixon pursued a similar strategy 1968, and won all of the former confederate states, turning the south into the solid Republican territory that it remains today.”
My friend Rick Perlstein has written eloquently about this divide and rule strategy pursued by our shameless conservative leaders, including Ronald Reagan, who opened his campaign for president in 1980 at the Neshoba County Fair, near where 3 civil rights activists were murdered in 1964. This opportunistic racism that has been used to encourage working class whites to vote against their own self interests.
At the same time, conservatives have changed the way that the federal government operates with their pathological insistence on tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. This has led to the cutting of popular programs, and a shift of the tax burden onto the middle-class, causing more anger at the federal government, leading to more calls for tax cuts. Wash, rinse, repeat. Meanwhile, other changes in policies and especially in federal tax code have encouraged the offshoring of well paying jobs to third world countries with no regulations and cut rate labor costs, by US corporations who fund our legislators. These very same legislators then turn around and preach austerity and cutbacks for the rest of us.
No wonder the average American looks at the federal government with horror.
Meanwhile, conservatives have insisted that to bring about widespread prosperity the government just needs to get out of the way of heroic businessmen and their corporations, who will then create millions of jobs.
However, it’s been 40 years attempting this theory of “trickle down” and the results are in.
“Beneficiaries of low taxes and deregulation desperately want to believe that “trickle-down” works, or at least to convince middle America that it works. They want to believe, against all logic, that lower taxes mean more tax revenue.
All this in the face of mountains of data disproving their supply-side ideas. As far back as1984 the Treasury Department concluded that most tax cuts lose revenue. More recent studies by Saez et al. and by the Economic Policy Institute found no connection between tax rates and economic growth, and Piketty, Saez, and Stantcheva determined that the optimal tax rate could be over 80 percent.
There is also hard evidence that cutting taxes on the rich fails to stimulate job creation, and that raising taxes on the rich has the opposite, beneficial effect. The facts come from Kansas and Minnesota. Despite early optimism by trickle-down adherents, tax cuts in Kansas have been disastrous, leading to revenue losses, cutbacks in education and health care, and sluggish job growth. In Minnesota, on the other hand, tax increases on the rich have led to higher wages, low unemployment, and rapid business growth. “
This debate about what role the federal government should play is ongoing. Not just between the liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans, but also between factions within the Democrat Party as the argument over the TPP between President Obama and Senator Warren illustrates. A huge unspoken component of the argument between the Democrats is due to the fact that the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party has embraced the same sort of trickle-down economic theory as the Republicans, where policies are crafted to benefit corporations with the idea that this will also benefit workers.
That these polices only benefit corporate CEO’s and the wealthy shareholders is never mentioned. Both parties exist to service the 1% with the policies they pursue, with the Republicans more upfront about it. So, for instance, with President Obama and the neoliberal Democrats we get platitudes about how great for workers and the environment these new and improved trade treaties will be. In fact, the TPP isn’t really a trade agreement as much as the formalization of corporate power through supranational tribunals and patent protections. The TPP will be also be horrible for workers and the environment.
We desperately need to birth a new political-economy that puts Americans back to work. An activist federal government could aid this effort immensely. Building out a public infrastructure, breaking up monopolies, taxing billionaires and vast family fortunes, subsidizing renewable energy, providing free health care and education are all good and noble projects a government that worked for us rather than for corporations could undertake.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has recently outlined a progressive manifesto. but this is just the beginnings of a long and arduous task ahead of us. Our present rulers will not go without a fight.
In the meantime, I remembered some simple counter arguments to this idea that government is evil. Next time someone repeats this argument just ask them if they like clean water, or clean air, or healthy food. Or if they enjoy driving on well maintained roads, etc. You get the idea. Even in its captured state of subservience to corporate interests the federal government still manages to make our lives better.
Update: Here’s a great example of some horrible bipartisan federal policy that will make our lives worse.
“The Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, sponsored by Rep. David Reichert (R-Wash.), would rely on $700 million in reduced Medicare spending in 2024 to pay for [sic] healthcare coverage and other benefits for workers who lose coverage because of any agreements negotiated under fast-track trade authority sought by President Barack Obama.”