“Big” Government and “Small” Government

Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum have signed a pledge from the National Organization for Marriage to “support a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage, to appoint federal judges who don’t see a constitutional right to same-sex marriage and to back the Defense of Marriage Act.

They’ve also pledged to support a referendum on marriage in Washington and to establish a “presidential commission on religious liberty” aimed at protecting the rights of marriage foes to speak out.

Today, Think Progress reports that Tim Pawlenty, who attracted criticism from NOM for initially declining to sign the pledge, said he would sign it. NOM reacted with excitement, saying that marriage is “an important issue on the federal level.”

In Texas, Gov. Perry signed a new law that requires doctors to give sonograms to all women seeking an abortion — whether it’s medically necessary or not. During the sonogram, the doctor is required to describe the fetus’s appearance to the woman and make her listen to the fetal heartbeat. The woman is not allowed to opt out of the sonogram, except in cases of fetal abnormality or if the pregnancy results from rape or incest. Republican-controlled state legislatures all over the country have passed similar laws, or are trying to do so.

The above are obvious examples of right-wing support for big government. But what about these next two?

Rep. Steve King of Iowa is outraged at new federal guidelines that stipulate insurance policies must cover contraception without co-payments because he opposes birth control on the grounds that it will end civilization.

Rick Santorum opposes early childhood education programs and public education in general because, he says, ““It is a parent’s responsibility to educate their children … not the government’s.” He believes that federal involvement in educating children should be ended, and that parents should be encouraged to teach their children, themselves, at home.

One might think that King and Santorum are objecting, in these examples, to the federal government sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong. But I think it’s rather that they disapprove of birth control and early childhood education, respectively, and believe that it’s the legitimate purpose of government to make it harder, or impossible, for women to use birth control, in the one case; and for parents to send their children to public schools, in the other. King would almost certainly have no problem with the federal government issuing guidelines that instructed insurance companies not to cover contraception, on the grounds that contraception is not medical care (which he stated, straight out), and Santorum would probably be fine with withdrawing all federal funding from public schools and/or with publicly subsidizing parents who decided to school their children at home.

Right-wing members of Congress support federal subsidies to the oil and gas industries as well as tax breaks for corporations and big business in general, and scream bloody murder when Democrats and/or progressives suggest eliminating them. Social conservatives strongly favor government restrictions on abortion, up to and including a federal ban on all abortions. They think the government has a right to control or restrict the ability of two consenting adults to marry if they are the same gender. They think the government has a right to prevent gay couples from adopting. They think government has the right to pass laws restricting or banning the wearing of specific types of religious garb in public. They think government has the right to pass laws forbidding specific religious observances that are not otherwise illegal, or to ban adherents of one particular religion from maintaining houses of worship.

And of course, the above does not even begin to touch on the right’s support for government exerting control over or violating political freedoms and human rights in areas such as surveillance, detention and interrogation policies, public assembly and peaceful dissent, personal reading choices, writing and reporting, personal associations, membership and/or involvement in volunteer and professional activities, domestic and foreign travel, and many more.

If it’s not clear by now, my purpose in writing all this is to push back, hard, against the notion that the essential difference between conservatives and liberals has to do with their respective philosophies about government. It’s to refute the idea that the right and left hold opposing views about the appropriate size of government and the proper relationship between government and the people.

In truth, the most significant difference between right and left has nothing to do with “small” government versus “big” government. It’s not true that conservatives believe the role of government should be limited to the specific powers enumerated in Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, while liberals believe that government should function as a self-styled benevolent nanny telling Americans what is best for them,  and making people’s choices for them instead of allowing individuals to make their own choices.

Liberals and conservatives both believe in big government. Indeed, it’s misleading even to use terms like “big” government and “small” government to define the difference between the right and the left when it comes to philosophies of governance. Both are buzzwords typically used by the right to characterize liberals’ and conservatives’ differing views of what the purpose of government should be. In conservative parlance in the context of government, “big” is bad and “small” is good. Liberals do not typically use these terms other than to reference the right’s assumptions’ about what government should and should not do.

The essential difference between the conservative and the liberal view of government has nothing to do with size. It has to do with differing beliefs about when and to what purpose government should take an active role in Americans’ individual personal lives — when and to what purpose government has a legitimate interest in influencing or controlling the choices people make.

For the right, the purpose of government is to define and enforce cultural, social, and religious norms; to fund the military and fight wars; and to develop and uphold fiscal and economic policies that help big business and the wealthy. For the left, the purpose of government is to protect and enforce individual civil liberties and political and legal freedoms; to address problems, conditions, and issues that affect the entire nation, or the public at large (such as poverty, unemployment, and access to health care); to protect and conserve the country’s natural and human resources; to provide the infrastructure of democracy and ensure that all citizens have access to the tools necessary for meaningful participation in a democracy (such as first-class public education), and in general to serve the public interest, especially when the public interest conflicts with private business interests.

This is the real difference between liberals and conservatives. It’s the difference between two competing visions of when and for what purpose government should exert itself — not whether government should exert itself.

Furthermore, neither of these competing visions is directly supported — or, for that matter, proscribed — by the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution talks about the general welfare, the common defense, the blessings of liberty, domestic tranquility, a more perfect Union. It does not define those concepts. It has absolutely nothing to say about private enterprise, or the invisible hand of the free market, or corporate tax rates, or oil and gas subsidies, or small government or big government. Neither does it provide a definition of marriage, or tell us when human life begins, or whether “enhanced interrogation” is a euphemism for torture or whether torture is cruel and unusual punishment, or whether the Fourth Amendment applies to the use of electronic technology to spy on Americans at work, or whether it is unconstitutional for a state governor to use taxpayer money to hold a Christian religious rally.

It is probably human nature that conservatives and liberals translate or interpret these general concepts in different ways when it comes down to specific policies. That does not change the fact that those general concepts are general concepts, which can be legitimately applied to a specific set of facts in differing ways. The right can condemn “judicial activism” all it likes, and pretend that conservatives take a narrow, or “originalist” view of the Constitution, that they only want to enforce what the Constitution actually says and don’t want to “invent new rights” that the Founders did not intend or want. The reality is that, regardless of the literal words on the page, it’s an eighteenth-century document that provides very general guidelines for designing a system of governance that can remain both focused and viable into the indefinite future. The Constitution cannot be read like an instruction manual or a blueprint. It does not endorse one view of government over another except in the broadest of terms. Given the Constitution’s lack of specificity on most subjects that are relevant today, it’s highly unlikely that anyone, either progressive or right-wing, is going to take a position on a contentious political or social issue that violates their entire understanding of how human society is supposed to work.

We should acknowledge that our differences lie in conflicting assumptions about the relationship between government and society in a democratic republic — not in a willful or malicious violation of clear and specific commandments laid down in a 225-year-old document.


Filed under Law, Politics, Society

5 responses to ““Big” Government and “Small” Government

  1. blackwatertown

    I take your point, but I’m not sure I agree. You’re right that the big v small government argument is often a smokescreen for differences on specific policies and rolled out inconsistently only when it suits. But even with that, there does seem to be a philosophical difference between the right and left in politics about the size of federal government, even once you strip away the hypocrisy.

  2. Excellent points, well argued.

  3. So maybe liberals and progressives need to talk about the “why” of government. What were the thoughts of those that had a hand in the setting up of this country.

    Should there be a classless society, a social compact between all inhabitants? We all look out for each other?

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