On April 10, 2010, the erudite columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times had this to say about the subject of “big government”:
One of the reasons so many conservative [sic] Republican absurdities became actual U.S. policy was the intellectual veneer slapped upon them by right-wing think tanks and commentators. The grossest nonsense was made to seem plausible to a lot of people – people who wanted to believe in a free lunch. When Mr. Reagan told the country that ‘government is the problem,’ the intellectual handmaidens of the corporate and financial elite were right there to explain in exhaustive detail why that was so. The result, in addition to the terrible consequences of Iraq and Afghanistan and the damage to America’s standing in the world, was the tremendous (and tremendously debilitating) transfer of wealth from working people in the U.S. to the folks already in the upper echelons of wealth and income. The elite made out like bandits – often literally.” Which of course is why those elites are against “big government” and drag a bunch of common folk who don’t know any better right along with them.
Of course, Reagan wasn’t the only one. I remember cringing in my seat when in his first State of the Union Address, Bill Clinton, Chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council before he became President of the United States, said “the era of big government is over.” The GOP/Tea-Party/Paulite (as in Ron, not Saint) users/re-users and over-users of the phrase are of course referring to a certain set of government functions. They include: taxation (without bothering to tell us taxation for what), regulation of such things as financial markets (which most Tea-Partiers just don’t seem to be able to get so they are just viscerally against it when you-know-who is for it) and the environment (which right-wingers are against until something happens to THEM, like a railroad tank-car spill or a ground pollution event that could have been prevented if there had been regulation); health insurance reform (which they are convinced by the Sean Hannitys of their world means a “government takeover of health care” when the whole operating system remains in private hands just as it is now (except for those chunks which are now in public hands, like the VA health system from which one can be sure a goodly number of Tea Partiers get their health care) but why confuse anyone with facts); and just about anything that might help the “undeserving poor” (especially if they are not white), however that term might be defined.
So, “government” yuck. Let’s just get rid of it and go back to “abiding by the Constitution.” Of course they seem to forget that the Constitution is a document that sets up a national government and gives it a whole bunch of functions to achieve the purposes set out in the Preamble with a whole bunch of powers spelled out in Articles I and II. But hey, again, why should they confuse themselves with facts.
However, is the debate really about “big government vs. small government?” Isn’t it more about what the proper functions of government are without referring to its size? After all, protestations, and the wishful thinking of a few lefties, to the contrary notwithstanding, polls show that the majority of Tea Partiers are GOPers. Ron Paul himself is a GOPer and votes with his party in Congress on most issues other than the last President’s foreign war-making. The GOPers in the Congress and those voters who identify themselves with that party, not with the Tea Party, are certainly GOPers. And they all say that their common interest, at least with this President in office, is “small government.” A nice, sort of libertarian thought, no? Well, no.
These folks are not for “small government” across the board. They are only for “small government” when it comes to certain kinds of issues. Issues like financial and environmental regulation. Like doing something about the worst excesses of the private health insurance companies and extending coverage to a majority (but not all) of the currently uninsured, through subsides to the self-same for-profit private health insurance companies. Like not dealing with the nation’s collapsing infrastructure, because their tax cuts and further cuts in Federal government spending would have to come from somewhere. Like not dealing with the nation’s collapsing educational system. Like doing nothing to deal with the nation’s energy supply problem other than finding more oil and natural gas within our borders and off our shores, whose supplies, forgetting about global warming and climate change, are priced by the international market not any national one and will eventually run out anyway.
But boy, these folks are for Big Government, very Big Government, in a bunch of other arenas, all of which just happen to do with personal belief and personal behavior. Let’s see now, what might they be? Well abortion rights, for one. They want to criminalize choice in that matter. But actually that issue goes way beyond abortion, per se. Rather it goes to the matter of the religious belief as to when life begins. Forget about abortion. They want to criminalize any belief other than that that holds that life begins at the moment of conception. That sounds like pretty big government to me.
Then there’s the matter of gay marriage. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution that they profess to hold so dear guarantees equal protection of the law “to any person within [the] jurisdiction” of each State. It happens that each state has a set of civil laws that applies to the institution of marriage. Yet these “small government” folks want to deny access to that civil law to same-sex couples wishing to marry, precisely denying them that guaranteed “equal protection of the laws,” just because these folks’ religious beliefs say “no” to gay marriage. Pretty big government there, wouldn’t you say, again placing one set of religious beliefs above all others.
Then there is the right to die, a pretty personal matter wouldn’t you say? Attorney General Ashcroft, you know, the one who put a drape over the bare breasts of the statue of justice in the lobby of the Department of Justice, went out of his way to try to interfere with the democratically adopted law concerning that matter in Oregon. These “small government” folks would deny terminally ill people the right, under very carefully controlled conditions, to obtain medical assistance in ending their lives at a time of their own choosing. Then there is the use of recreational mood-altering drugs (RMADs) and drug-carriers. Certain ones, like the two major killers, tobacco products and ethyl alcohol, are “OK.” They are subject to taxation and certain civil limitations on place and time of use, and of course criminal prosecution in the case of alcohol, for otherwise criminal acts committed under its influence. Other RMADs, like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, are subject to blanket prohibition, simply of sale and use, totally limiting personal choice of exactly which RMAD to use or not, at the risk of criminal prosecution. Sounds like pretty big government once again, no?
These folks are very much for big government in a whole bunch of arenas. But they all have to do with personal beliefs, especially religious ones, and behaviors even when they directly harm no one else. They are for “small government” when it comes to dealing with economic issues and very big national problems like the crumbling infrastructure, the failing educational system, and the future of energy supply. The favorite right-winger of certain lefties (because he happened to be against the Iraq War), Ron Paul, gets caught up in this contradiction right from the git-go. It happens that this physician is as against abortion rights as any one else on his side of the aisle in Congress.
To date, for the most part our side has let the Right get away with this charade, in part because some of those professing to be on our side, like Bill Clinton, bought right into it, for political reasons. Isn’t it time that we went on the attack on this issue, as on so many others on which many of our allies just play defense, if they play the game at all?
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC.