Thursday, March 24, 2011

Debate on Big Government

The following article was originally posted on February 17th. I'm putting it up again because of its relevance both to a recent debate in which I was engaged and to the larger political issues being discussed as the recession starts turning around.

I recently posted a status update on Facebook that said:

I know that few things make right-wingers happier than embracing their delusion about liberals loving Big Government (understanding our actual ideology would be too taxing - pun intended), but this... this is friggin' ridiculous.

This prompted a lengthy debate between myself and a conservative friend of mine named Kevin. Initially it focused solely on the details of Michele Bachmann's statement; soon, however, Kevin made this comment:

Your argument about the Right's "delusion" is delusional. To say that liberals don't support greater government involvement in daily life and services is to deny the basic tenets of liberal philosophy. Your argument here is founded on one case of hyperpartisanship and overreaction.

What follows, unedited and unaltered, is my response to that assertion, which due to its length and importance I felt warranted an entirely separate blog article. For the conservation that preceded it, see:

Let's dissect each facet of your last statement:

- Social Policy: The conservative movement is constantly warring with the liberal movement because, whereas the former wants to use the power of the state to impose its personal moral convictions (i.e., the convictions of the Christian Right) on the rest of society, the latter takes a laissez-faire approach and believes that the government should stay out of people's personal lives (see gay rights, abortion rights, peripheral issues like being allowed to not say the Pledge of Allegiance or burn the flag, etc.)

- Foreign Policy: Once again, liberals are the ones who support scaling down the size of the military-industrial complex and limiting our intervention in foreign conflicts (when they don't, it is invariably because they have allied with a dominant right-wing faction, not because they are adhering to a liberal platform), while conservatives favor increasing the size of government in both of these areas.

- Economic Policy: When conservatives complain about "Big Government", it is this realm to which they are usually referring. That said, although they like to distort liberal economic ideas by depicting them as a paean to state power and a yearning for increased centralization, the reality is that the goal of mainstream American liberals is to protect what they believe to be the economic rights of all American citizens (for a list of these rights, see: Because these rights are frequently imperiled by private entities - be they large corporations that pay substandard wages and arbitrarily lay off thousands of workers when it suits their profit desires, or health insurance companies that gouge the public and thereby deny decent medical care to millions, or banks that foist predatory loans on people buying homes, or big businesses that form monopolies and thus stifle competition - liberals believe that the only way for every citizen's economic rights to be protected is for the government to step in and stop those private individuals and/or organizations that are violating them. This is not something that we support because we savor the idea of a strong central government, any more so than we would savor the idea of putting murderers and rapists in jail for the same reason. Our logic here is that, although "if men were angels, no government would be necessary" (that's a James Madison quote), the fact that men aren't angels means government is a necessary evil, one that can prevent or at least minimize the destructive effects of selfishness and downright malevolence on innocent people. Our desire to pass laws to prevent economic injustices is no more statist than our support of laws that prevent and/or punish crimes of violence.

Conservatives differ from liberals here because either (a) they don't see any problem with the economically strong exploiting the weak, viewing it as natural or even morally right, or (b) they feel that allowing the free market to go about its business unfettered is far more likely to resolve these issues. While I won't delve into why I think both of these opinions are wrong, suffice to say that it is asinine to assert that disagreeing with them, and thus believing the government can and should work to fight economic injustice, means that "liberals love Big Government" (to paraphrase the expression with which you just agreed). It simply means that we believe the government needs to exert its power to correct problems and evils that would otherwise be left unaddressed. Claiming that "Big Government" is our motive is a distortion of the liberal position, just like arguing that right-wingers who supported Bush's policies did so because they wanted to create a military state (as some wrongfully purported) is a distortion of the conservative position. Those arguments involve believing that an ideological group wants to use the power of a certain institution to solve certain problems not because they care about those problems, but merely because their ideology causes them to crave increasing the power of the institution in question. At best, this is a misinformed oversimplification; at worst, it is a deliberate straw man argument (also known as a lie).

After re-reading my rebuttal to Kevin, my only regret is that I failed to mention the other duty of government as it is perceived by economic liberals - i.e., the obligation of the state to not only protect its citizens from active economic malice, but also to provide them with a safety net in the event of "Acts of God." Just as the government should assist people who lose their homes or businesses after a natural disaster or a foreign attack, so too should it help them get back on their feet after a recession or depression causes them to lose their jobs, homes, savings, or other economic necessities.

Of course, this oversight proved irrelevant, as Kevin never bothered responding to my post.

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