In listening to President Obama’s “State of the Union Address” this year, one of the things that struck me is how many of us have been taken in by this whole hoopla around “…big government is bad; small government is good…” In fact, much of what Obama suggested was a contradiction in terms whereby he was advocating greater investment in the future, while at the same time, slashing budgets and freezing wages. So, let me offer a few thoughts.
First, what no one in elite politics seems to want to talk about is that the budget deficit and debt are largely the result of the reckless spending of the Bush administration in getting us into two wars, compounded by declining revenues as a result of the Great Recession. Thus, the discussions about cutting domestic spending in order to address the deficit miss the point entirely. To address the deficit, we really need to end the wars and occupations.
Except for one thing. The conservative politicians who are raising this issue know full well that domestic spending is not the root of the problem. What they wish to do, however, is to cut programs that are to the benefit of poor and working people. It all goes back to a strategy introduced by Reagan and his advisor David Stockman whereby they sought to cut the ability of government to increase resources to address the poor and working people by bringing about a budgetary crisis.
So, what is at stake is really a struggle between two different conceptions of government. When the conservatives attack big government you have to ask them what are they talking about. Are they suggesting cutting the military? Usually not. How about police and prisons? Almost never. So, what are they talking about?
What is being attacked as so-called Big Government are things like veterans’ programs and benefits; the postal service; food safety inspection (to make sure that we are not poisoned); housing programs; occupational health and safety programs at work; environmental protection to make sure that we are not contaminated by the waste left over by corporate America; jobs for those who lack them; not to mention any significant investment in rebuilding the infrastructure of this country. What these programs have in common is that they are focused on the average person, rather than the rich. They are programs that, when they work well, decrease the polarization of wealth and strengthen the ability of working people to stand on their own. This is what the conservatives wish to undermine.
There is nothing particularly wrong with Big Government. It is more a question of what government is doing or not doing, and the extent to which government is serving the people rather than acting as a weight on top of them. Thus, when the conservatives attack health care reform, they are not saying that the legislation that passed did not go far enough. No, they are saying that government should stay out of the way of the insurance companies and healthcare industry in their quest for profits on top of our bodies.
The next time someone says something to you about so-called Big Government ask them what they are prepared to see shut down. If they are able to answer coherently, their answer will tell you a great deal about their character and, indeed, about their humanity.
(Bill Fletcher Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)