Love the Government, Hate the Government

I have for several months now been vexed by the irresolvable contradictions of the American political mindset.  For the first two decades of my life, I was brought up to believe that the problem with our society was that we had way too much faith in the government–the State was our Saviour, an idol to which we sacrificed all and for which we looked for every solution.  And this critique resonated deeply with me.  

For the past year, though, I have begun to wonder.  Having traveled overseas, what has struck me most about America is not how much faith we put in our government, but how little.  The rise of the Tea Party movement and the fall of Congressional approval ratings to historic lows has underscored this long-growing tendency of American politics.  We don’t trust our government to do anything; we consider it not our government, but simply the government, an alien entity that forces us to obey it and pay it tribute, like an invading force.  And perhaps this should be a greater matter of concern than the State-as-idol concern.  After all, our current situation bears all the marks of the decline and fall of a great civilizations, as summarized by Carroll Quigley in his 1963 The Evolution of Civilizations (thanks to my Dad for this quote): 

“[There is] acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between the various vested interests, and growing illiteracy.  The society grows weaker and weaker.  Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation.  But the decline continues. The religious, intellectual, social, and political levels of the society begin to lose the allegiance of the masses of the people on a large scale.  New religious movements begin to sweep over the society.  There is a growing reluctance to fight for the society or even to support it by paying taxes.”

Perhaps the idolatry and the hatred of the government are just two sides of the same coin–in modern Europe, they don’t distrust their governments so thoroughly because they never invest them with such a sacred aura in the first place…the government is simply a boring bureaucracy that gets an important job done with more or less efficiency, usually less than desired, but not enough to warrant massive protests.  At any rate, I’ve been pondering this problem unsuccessfully for several months now, hoping for a brilliant insight.  

I haven’t had one yet, but this morning, I came across an article by Patrick Deneen on The Front Porch Republic, which eloquently ponders and describes this national schizophrenia as a result of our contradictory longings as a people and hatred of ourselves: 

“Our hatred of Washington is a hatred of ourselves, above all for our contradictory longings that we refuse to face. We pine for a time of accountability and responsibility, but fear the burdens of sacrifice and self-government. We ache for a government that can make America great again, and suspect that any effort in that direction will further impoverish subsequent generations. We long to be self-sufficient, but fear a world without safety nets.”  

The whole essay is well worth checking out.

The Problem in a Nutshell

The contents of this post are probably nothing new if you’ve this blog for awhile, but as people back home sometimes get baffled and think I’m a left-wing loony, I’ve been thinking of a way to encapsulate where I’m coming from politico-economically in a nice, neat (though none too eloquent) nutshell.  So here’s a try:

I’m for a free market, or more importantly, a free society, which includes a free market.  Freedom requires the removal of oppressive constraints.  But oppressive constraints are precisely what are put in place by large and powerful entities determined to retain and advance their power.  We live in a world full of massive, extremely wealthy and powerful entities.  Our government is one, to be sure.  But when there’s ten bullies on the block jockeying for position, you don’t get freedom just by taking out the current top bully–rather, by doing this you invite the nine others to come in and take his place, and woe to you if they turn out to be less benign than the first.  If we’re going to live in an age of massive, centralized multinational corporations, then unfortunately we’re going to need massive, centralized governments to keep them in line (though unfortunately, these will often collude with the corporations, rather than restraining them).  You focus just on removing the governments and you don’t get freedom, you just get regime change–indeed, from a constitutional regime to an unrestricted one.  Conservatives talk as if freedom will be attained simply by removing one bully from the equation–the government–and leaving all the others untouched.  But if they get their wish, they may find that the government was, for all its foibles, the only thing maintaining some semblance of freedom from all the other bullies on the block.  So if we’re going to talk about freedom, let’s start talking about how to shrink all the bullies down to size, something that will require laws and constraints–things which, believe it or not, can be aids to freedom, rather than chains.

Now, I realize now that that’s really only half of what needs to be said, so I suppose I’ll try to work up a Pt. 2: The Solution in a Nutshell.  Heh, that should be fun…

NYT on the Republican Deficit Plan

This afternoon on Yahoo Finance I found an NYT article by David Leonhardt offering pretty much the same criticism of the “Pledge to America” that I offered below in “Delusions of a Prodigal Nation”–only they have good quotes and good statistics and good journalism to liven it up.  It’s well-worth a read.  “Congressional Republicans have used the old trick of promising specific tax cuts and vague spending cuts,” Leonhardt laments.  It pretends that cutting out a little fat from a few wasteful programs will do the trick, but

The bulk of the deficit problem instead comes from three popular programs, Medicare, Social Security and the military, and they happen to be the ones the Republican pledge exempts from cuts. But it’s impossible to fix the deficit without making cuts to these programs or raising taxes. To suggest otherwise is to claim that 10 minus 1 equals 5.

“In short,” Leonhardt summarizes, “the pledge imagines a world without tough choices, where we can have low taxes, big government and a balanced budget.”


Big Government in Europe?

We hear a lot in the US about how, despite the “tyranny” we have to put up with, we’re still much freer and better off than those “socialist” European countries, which are being choked in the stranglehold of big government.  Occasionally these claims are even accompanied by statistics proving that public spending as a percentage of GDP is considerably higher than in the US (and it’s high enough there).  Oddly, though, most Europeans don’t seem to feel choked by big government as much as we Americans do.

A very illuminating chart from an excellent recent article in the Economist on the new Tory agenda in the UK suggests a more complex picture.  It shows the percentage of total gov’t spending that comes from the central government in various western countries.  Britain, unsurprisingly, is one of the worst, with the national budget making up more than 70% of total public expenditure.  In the US, it is still pretty bad–around 57%.  However, in all those “big-government” European countries like France and Germany, it ranges from 19% to 36%.  This is particularly striking when you realize that in a country as vast as the United States, with 50 states, many of which were once semi-autonomous, you would actually expect federal spending to be relatively lower than in a smaller country.  Or at least, I would.  

This chart seems to confirm something I have come to suspect in recent months–that it is not government per se that is the problem, but excessively centralized government.  You can have a huge public sphere and get along just fine, if that hugeness is dispersed in every local community, instead of massed together in one great Leviathan.  Perhaps conservatives in America should start looking to places like France as examples to profit from, not run from.  Now there’s a crazy idea?