Say what you want about Karl Marx, but he was right about one thing: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” For Marx this leads into an elaborate and complex analysis involving changes in the means of production and the relationship between classes over time, but for our purposes we can boil it down to this: there’s only so much stuff to go around (i.e. money, power, status) and everybody wants as much as they can get. So how do we decide how the stuff is distributed and who gets the lion’s share? This has been the fundamental business of human government since the beginning, aside from waging war which, more often than not, is itself about access to stuff. Of course we’re risking oversimplification here in characterizing the totality of human history and government but, if we must, the quest for stuff seems as good a place to start as any.
This being the case, those born into positions of wealth and privilege, particularly when they constitute a small minority, are faced with a central dilemma. Outnumbered as they are, how can they prevent a revolt from the vast majorities who, if organized and properly motivated, could easily overthrow the privileged few and demand, if not the heads of their former oppressors, at the very least a bigger slice of the pie? In medieval times such a revolt might be a violent one while in the America of today it might take place at the ballot box. Common sense tells us that people with wealth and power are extremely unlikely to give it up easily. In fact, they’ve been known to become quite paranoid about maintaining it and more than a bit zealous about extending it. As such, history is full of examples of how those in power have managed the task of subduing the masses and upholding the cherished status quo.
The first and most obvious of these options is through totalitarian brutality. North Korea’s Kim Jong Il offers a modern example where a dictator and his small cadre live like rock stars while millions starve. Historically speaking, though, strong-arm tactics are problematic. Totalitarian rule sets up a catch-22. The more you crackdown on suspected opposition the more you raise the ire of the masses whose popular support you cannot survive without. The Somoza family monopolized the Nicaraguan economy for much of the 20th century (with American support) but eventually succumbed to popular revolt. Initially the Sandinista opposition had been fairly weak, but, in a classic instance of the paranoia of power, the Somozas overreacted to the threat. The more they lashed out, the more traction the Sandinistas gained with the public, until eventually the numbers got the best of them and the regime collapsed.
A much more effective alternative to the totalitarian approach lies in the realm of ideas. If those in power can manage to sell an idea that justifies their own status in the eyes of the people they can rest easy without lifting a finger. This is the Holy Grail for any ruling minority. Perhaps the greatest historical example would be the divine right of kings. In a medieval world where the belief in a judgmental God was absolute, those in power sold the idea that a king was born into power because God wanted him to rule. It followed from this that if you were born into peasantry the Holy Father was equally set on you living a life of squalor. Under this view of the world, to stage a revolt against those in power would be to defy God himself and, in turn, to relegate yourself to eternal damnation. Thus, while the king and his twelve buddies were gorging themselves and fornicating like, well, kings, outside the castle gates and across the mote a mass population that could easily have put an end to the absurd inequality opted to ride it out as best they could and look forward to an improved afterlife.
Of course it would be inaccurate to compare modern America to Somoza’s Nicaragua or medieval Europe. There are, however, some basic parallels in the broadest sense. Relatively speaking, we live in a country where the vast majority of wealth lies in the hands of a select few. Moreover, this is a new development. Income inequality had been steadily decreasing in America over the course of the entire 20th century before doing an about face right about 1980. With the onset of the conservative revolution, the distance between rich and poor has suddenly and conspicuosly increased over the last three decades. The richest one percent now holds more total wealth than the bottom 90%, a level of inequality not seen in America since 1928- not coincidentally the year prior to the onset of the Great Depression.
Aside from any moral ramifications that one might wish to assign, history shows that such rampant inequality is bad for the economy as a whole. Alan Greenspan- no socialist sympathizer- has called this rise in inequality a “very disturbing trend” and told Congress that this is “not the type of thing that a democratic society- a capitalist democratic society- can really accept without addressing.” And yet, for the most part, we do accept it.
And so here we have the classic dilemma outlined at the onset. How is it that a small minority can sustain a pattern of increasing wealth and power when it not only violates the interests of the vast majority, but of the most basic principles of sound economics?
The answer is that, right around the late 70’s, the privileged few, perhaps frustrated by their declining power over the course the century, finally stumbled upon an idea they could sell to the masses to justify not only the maintenance but the rapid extension of their own wealth.
There it was. The Holy Grail. A modern incarnation of the divine right of kings. This was the idea that government power in any form- but most importantly in the realm of taxation, social programs and corporate regulation- constituted an affront to personal liberty and to democratic freedom itself. Once this idea gained traction with the public the door was opened for a political revolution that would re-establish the power and wealth of a select few. With this development the entire mechanism (good government), indeed the entire thought process (the belief in such), through which the working and middle classes had promoted their own interests throughout the century was voluntarily, even enthusiastically, handed over to those who had no concern for their welfare whatsoever.
Once again: Jackpot.
As such, it is certainly correct to apply the word “revolution” to the rise of small government conservatism and Ronald Reagan in 1980. It might be even more accurate, though, to refer to this as a “reverse revolution.” Whereas the concept of revolution throughout history is normally associated with an oppressed majority rising up against a controlling minority, in conservative America it’s more a case of a controlling minority re-establishing a self-serving if not oppressive influence over a larger majority.
It’s popular today on the right to use the term “class warfare” to obliterate any argument on behalf of pro-majority economic policies. This, of course, is a wonderful propaganda term itself, applying a Marxist cloak to perfectly reasonable attempts at public policy debate. In fact, the first salvo in the modern American class war was fired from above, with Reagan small government conservatism taking out pillars of pro-middle class economic policy like Apache helicopters blasting retreating Iraqis on the Highway of Death. It’s been a rather one-sided affair. Suck on that Karl Marx.
We should note, of course, that there are real differences between the divine right of kings and small government philosophy as tools of control. We can pretty much characterize the divine right of kings as a total fabrication whereas the concern for small government does have a legitimate basis in reality. In fact it is this historical underpinning that has made it such a saleable concept. The 20th century is full of examples of centralized governments and totalitarian regimes that not only failed miserably but were responsible for untold human suffering. All Americans are right to be wary of the overextension of government power in any real way that threatens to lead us down such a path.
Such wariness seems more than a bit misplaced, however, when applied to things like progressive taxation and corporate regulation. In fact, taxing wealthy people to pay for new roads (or wars) is a pretty legitimate exercise of government power. So too is preventing corporations from polluting our air and water. Or poisoning the food we eat. And countless other things that are strictly a matter of common sense for any sane society. And yet the American people are sold a small government philosophy so absolute and relentless as to find fault with even these rather obvious and necessary uses of government power.
The key word here is “sold.” Because, if you look closely- and here’s where some of the ulterior manipulations of small government rhetoric can be exposed- it is demonstrably true that conservative politicians and policy makers don’t really believe in small government as an absolute guiding principle. There are many areas in which conservative policies are happy to apply government power in a pretty zealous manner. On the one hand conservatives argue that the government is perpetually inefficient and incompetent. On the other hand, they vigorously support the death penalty, accepting the premise that government can fairly and accurately determine cases where a human life can be taken. Is there a bigger exercise of government power than that? One could argue that our penal system itself, holding a higher percentage of our citizens in jail than any country in the world, constitutes a pretty heavy application of government power. Conservatives also believe that government should make laws outlawing abortion and gay marriage. Where’s the freedom and liberty in that? Remember the Terry Schiavo case? A special session of Congress called just so conservative lawmakers could exercise control over the personal decision of a single American family. Now that’s some big-ass government.
And then there’s the military. Is there really a bigger bureaucratic labyrinth in the American government than the military? Usually conservatives tell us that the government is completely inept and virtually useless in carrying out major initiatives. And yet they support the massive logistical outlay of multiple foreign wars. And then they tell us how wonderful and miraculous our military performance is. However true this assessment may be, it does seem a little inconsistent, no?
Which one is it? Government is inefficient and useless or government (the military being, in essence, the government) is totally awesome?
And here we see that small government rhetoric is often just a smokescreen for the real governing principle of modern conservatives: protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful few at the top.
In essence, conservative policy adheres to small government principles when it serves these interests and just as quickly reverts to exercises of massive government power when it suits them as well.
Once again, the guiding principle is not small government. It’s the protection and extension of the interests of a wealthy and powerful uber-minority. Even when it’s bad for the majority. Even when it’s bad for America.
Let’s take a closer look. As mentioned, the area where small government philosophy really makes hay is in regards to progressive taxation, social programs and corporate regulation. Conservative politicians want as little of these as possible because they threaten the extreme wealth of their constituency. They certainly want to eliminate all “entitlement” programs, of course, because, admittedly, these are programs that the wealthy pay into without actually benefitting from. The top one percent can afford good schools, good health care. If a hurricane is coming they can skip town and hole up in the Four Season for as long as it takes. They don’t need government services. So why would they want to support them with their tax money? Seems unfair.
Yay small government!
With the death penalty, on the other hand, the government suddenly becomes an all-powerful, all-knowing Godlike entity. This inconsistency is easily explained by the fact that the death penalty, and the penal system itself, are perfectly in step with the concerns and interests of the wealthy minority. People in the top one percent don’t tend to find their way onto death row. On the contrary, death row is populated by the extremely poor and disenfranchised. This is not the time nor the place for a dissertation on the causes of crime, but there is strong evidence to suggest that high crime (which we have here in America) is a predictable offshoot of economic inequality. As the top one percent increases its wealth and power, then, they’ll want to stay on top of that increasingly pesky and pissed off criminal element. In this case, government rocks! Just don’t tell the tea partiers.
The military can be seen as an offshoot of this same impulse on a global scale. It seems pretty undeniable to say that America, while using its military idealistically in some cases, has often used it to protect our economic interests abroad and/or to do deal with any backlash from said endeavors. Thus, the military serves a role in increasing the wealth and power of the top one percent while at the same protecting it from miscellaneous global threats. And, best of all, it’s the poor and middle class kids who fight the wars. Win-win for the economic elites- they reap the benefits without making the sacrifice.
And while we’re considering the military, one would think that, if you’re a believer in the ability of the American military to implant democracy in a place like Iraq, it seems a small step from there to believe, let’s say, that a well-funded FEMA could be of some use in a case like Hurricane Katrina. Yet conservatives make no such leap. On the contrary, it was Bush II who downsized FEMA considerably, with his initial FEMA director Joe Allbaugh announcing that the agency constituted an “oversized entitlement program” and that “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” To review: fighting two wars across the globe and implanting democracy in Iraq=appropriate exercise of government power; providing necessary assistance to Americans caught up in a natural disaster=inappropriate use of government power.
Again, the distinction has nothing to do with any kind of real dedication to small government in principle. It has to do with the fact that FEMA, unlike the military, provides no real benefit to the wealthy elites. Did you see many rich folk waving for help or dying in the streets in New Orleans?
Social issues like gay marriage and the Terry Schiavo case have no discernable economic motive, but they fit nicely into the overall effort to bolster political support. Gays make people uncomfortable across the social, economic and political spectrum, and therefore gay bashing is an effective way to gain public support for politicians primarily concerned with the economic interests of the elite.
Opposition to safe, legal abortion, on the other hand, is a two-fer. It serves the same electoral purpose as gay-bashing while simultaneously promoting a policy that has far more deleterious implications for the poor and middle class. Common sense dictates that the most desperate situations are those where the expectant mother is financially marginal, unable to properly care for a child, and perhaps looking at a lifetime of poverty with the child as opposed to a chance for education and/or a career without one. These types of concerns don’t come into play for the daughters of the rich. As happy as they are to support government extension of power over women’s bodies through legal limitations on safe abortions, however, conservatives revert to small government crusading when it comes to federal funding of abortion. Rich women will always be able to afford safe abortions. Poor women are on their own.
The undeniable conclusion is that small government is not, in reality, a useful or actual governing philosophy across the board. It’s a canard, and, more importantly, a tool of manipulation. Prior to 1980 the wealthiest folks in America were lacking such a tool. And their hold on power was dissipating as a result. They had no real mechanism for selling the policies that served their interests because these policies were contrary to the interests of the majority and to common sense itself.
And, then, in a bit of a perfect-storm scenario, the power of an idea took hold. The totalitarian experience of the 20th century opened the door to the successful promotion of small government as an ideal. Economists like Milton Friedman pioneered the idea that government intrusion in the economy and on high-level wealth was inherently anti-democratic (a key point in the formation of small government rhetoric as an effective weapon). And then came Rush Limbaugh, FOX News, and the rest of the right-wing media army- the perfect mechanism for selling the small government philosophy. Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck. They’re men of the people. Just a couple of average Joes lookin’ out for the folks. You couldn’t ask for better messengers.
O’Reilly and Beck are at their best when railing against the liberal “elites”- a rhetorical magic trick in which the middle class is encouraged to (and generally does) regard the Democrats as the ones who are out of touch with their interests. Obama, Reid, Pelosi, they’re all hoity-toity elites with no clue how the average guy thinks and feels. Conservatives, by comparison really do know how the average guy thinks and feels. Actually, this might be true, but conservatives are more interested in using this information for political manipulation than public policy that serves anyone’s interests aside from their own.
This is precisely why candidates like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin tend to wind up on center stage in Republican political campaigns. They wrap up pro-elite economic policy in a down home, folksy package, promoting the intended false impression that the out of touch elites are on the left rather than the right.
Indeed, while there may be some form of liberal elite in this country, the only elites that really matter, the ones that are truly dangerous, are those on the right using small government rhetoric to dominate policy. Nobody epitomizes this modern menace better than right-wing idea man Bill Kristol. Born into a politically and economically prominent family, Kristol went to a fancy Manhattan prep school, then Harvard, then hit the ground running thanks to daddy’s connections.
Kristol’s education, his health care, his path to glory were pretty much set in stone from the get-go. Yet he leads the charge against improvements in health care, education and opportunity to those below him on the economic ladder. He also never fought in a war or served in the military- but was a leading proponent of going to war in Iraq. His maniacal fear of retreating one inch from the privilege he was born into seeps through in the famous memo he wrote to fellow conservative insiders urging defeat of Bill Clinton’s 1994 health care plan:
“[If passed, the Clinton health care plan] will re-legitimize middle class dependence for ‘security’ on government spending and regulation. It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.”
Notice that Kristol is focused here on Republican “claims” to defend the middle class through small government policies. He’s not concerned with actually protecting those interests- just claiming to. Because his real objective is to protect to interests of his own cohort, the extreme economic elite, by convincing the other 99% to misconstrue their own best interests and play along.
And then there’s former president George W. Bush. Nothing exposes the vacancy of Bush’s supposed small government philosophy like his business dealings in buying the Texas Rangers baseball franchise in the late 1980’s. Bush tapped into daddy’s rolodex to assemble a group of investors, gladly accepted $200 million in tax payer money to help build a new stadium, and, most egregiously (and hypocritically) of all, worked with local government to use eminent domain to force private landowners off their property so that he and his cronies could develop the land around the new stadium for personal profit. Once again: George W. Bush used eminent domain to force private landowners off their land so that he and his cadre of wealthy, connected private investors could cash in. Initially the dispossessed landowners were compensated at a rate far below market value. Only years later, after lengthy lawsuits, were they awarded a fair market rate. Read all about it here.
This episode from the business life of George W. Bush exemplifies how the wealthy and powerful are quick to apply small government when it suits them (reduced taxes for the wealthy, reduced corporate regulations) and then equally quick to embrace the most egregious big government tactics (eminent domain) when it serves them as well. Yet again, we see that “small government” and “individual freedom” are smokescreens for the real guiding principle: the extension of wealth and power for the privileged few.
In times like these it’s hard to say whether modern society as a whole is making any kind of “progress” aside from the technological. But, for the richest one percent, when it comes to addressing the age-old dilemma of securing and even extending their hold on power against all odds, the last thirty years of American life give indication that they are perfecting their craft.
Under the divine right of kings in medieval Europe the vast majority stoically accepted their fate and tolerated life on the margins.
In small government America they take to the streets and demand it.