Monday, May 31, 2010

Does Size (Of Government) Really Matter?

**Warning:  The Following Blog May Pose a Choking Hazard to Readers Who Are Fond of Tea**

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you won't be surprised when I say that I am old enough to remember vividly the Vietnam War era.  It was a time of tremendous social and political upheaval in the U.S.  Many people of my age deeply distrusted government when it became clear that politicians were lying about the justification for entering the war, and misleading us regarding its course.   The conduct of the war included atrocities and tactics that were contradictory to America's claim to being the world's "good guys."  Youth culture upset established values and ethics.  We were torn by the assassinations of the John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  The arguments about the issues of the day became more and more polarized, with a lot of pressure to identify with extreme positions even if you didn't agree with them -- slogans of the day were things like "You're either with us or against us"  "America, love it or leave it"  "If you're not part of the solution then you're part of the problem"  "If you're not my ally then you're my enemy."  It really seemed like the country was coming apart at the seams.

I'm not sure that things are as bad now as they were then, but I think we're getting close.  And of course added to today's malaise is the economic melt down and a growing feeling that our financial system can no longer be the source of pride it was once.  Just as assumptions about the sanctity of American's fundamental institutions were questioned during the Vietnam era, today we are also questioning the legitimacy of how we generate and distribute wealth.  And we are again in an era of extremism, in which our debates on these questions are framed in terms of exclusionary choices that for many of us are unpalatable in both directions -- "X" versus "Y" with no middle ground, where neither "X" nor "Y"  truly reflect many people's personal values and beliefs.

The current wave of anti-government sentiment, exemplified by the rise of the "Tea Party" and by the positions of the most vocal conservatives,  is frequently cast as a question of how large we want government to be and what level of control we want it to have in our lives.  Liberals, progressives, and socialists want big, powerful government that regulates all aspects of our lives.  Clear thinking patriots and conservatives want minimal government with little regulatory power.

I think this distinction is overly simplistic in two ways.  First, it can be argued that the question is as much about values as it is about size and power.  Many conservatives have no qualms endorsing a large and costly military establishment, or spending billions building a fence across our southern border, or allowing governmental intrusion into our private lives in an effort to protect us from terrorists or illegal aliens.  Big, powerful, expensive government can be very, very good, as long as it is seen as a manifestation of the "correct" values and priorities.

Second, the distinction is misleading because it characterizes all those who currently have anti-government feelings as having the same conservative philosophical position.  As the liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote recently:
The more important and dynamic force behind the current disillusionment with government comes instead from those who actually believe it can and should be effective. They do not think that the market is automatically rational or that the government has to be dumb. They are fed up with government not because their ideology or philosophy tells them to be but because they don't think government has been doing a proper job of promoting prosperity, equity and fair-dealing.
 I readily identify with the group Dionne is referring to, and it is very irritating to be grouped with people like Tim Bridgewater, Sara Palin, and the Tea Partiers because the solutions they offer are fundamentally unpalatable to me.  My beliefs about the proper role of government are nicely captured by another quote from Dionne's recent column:
The central tasks of democratic government, after all, typically involve standing up for the many against the few, the less powerful against the more powerful. Government is supposed to make sure that corporations are properly supervised when they turn public resources (the environment in the Gulf of Mexico, say) into private gain. It is charged with protecting those with weaker bargaining positions (coal miners, for example) against the harm that those in stronger bargaining positions might inflict.
Its duty is to keep the private economy running smoothly by preventing fraud, shady dealing and self-interested behavior that threaten the entire system. And yes, it's supposed to keep us safe from physical harm, as it did in New York [the recent attempted terrorist attack in Times Square].
I'd add that I want government to approach these tasks efficiently and economically, with minimal intrusion into my private life and with due regard for the civil rights of all Americans.  I accept that there are a variety of ways these tasks can be accomplished,  and that no one party or individual has all the answers.  Solutions to our problems require cooperation, compromise, and coordination among our lawmakers.  That is why I am so dismayed to see government in its current dysfunctional state.

 Coffee, anyone?

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