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In Praise of Big Government!


Hardly a day goes by without at least one conservative complaining about the government that pays his or her salary.

In Friday’s news, five northeastern congressional representatives have told their constituents not to blame them for the GOP tax plan. The five, all Republicans, voted for the plan and are now saying the blame lies with the “tax-and-spend culture” of states like New York and New Jersey.

They’re seeking to thread a rhetorical needle with this argument, admitting that the tax plan will have negative results in their states, while blaming the states themselves for existing policy. In essence, it’s the same argument Republicans often make—the problem is taxes, pretending that taxes are just one side of the equation. After all, money doesn’t just go in; it also is disbursed through a number of functions. And places such as New York, New Jersey, and other “blue” states are doing relatively well economically, compared with other parts of the country. “Tax-and-spend” is working. And so here I proclaim a rousing defense of big government!

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution; government is the problem.” Except Reagan didn’t exactly speak those words. The quote is, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Reagan’s current disciples may miss that nuance, but nevertheless, it’s a philosophy that underlies much of the Republican party’s current governing strategy.

Of course, this idea goes back even farther, from opposition to FDR’s New Deal, through to party leaders such as Barry Goldwater. At the same time, Republican presidents did not always shrink from using the tools of government to accomplish policy goals. Eisenhower mobilized federal troops to help desegregate schools in Little Rock. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Gerald Ford sought to stimulate the economy. George H.W. Bush pursued high deficit spending and sent troops to fight against the Iraqi army. George W. Bush instituted military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When anti-government politicians protest “tax-and-spend” policies and speak about freedom from government, what are they really seeking? Senator Orrin Hatch recently stated, “I believe in helping those who cannot help themselves but would if they could. I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything.” Or take Senator Chuck Grassley’s argument to all but eliminate the federal estate tax: “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said. “As opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

If only those ungrateful, hard drinking poor people weren’t so profligate with their lifestyle and could be as abstemious as President Trump, whose heirs stand to make a windfall from the demise of the estate tax.

Politicians like Hatch and Grassley reveal their true motives with their rhetoric; it’s less about freedom than it is about making sure that those at the bottom don’t take too much from those at the top. It’s a classist argument and, sadly, one with racially coded phrases as well.

This point is hardly original. You can see the same themes laid out in the pages of the New York Times (see Paul Krugman’s editorial) or the New Republic. But I think it’s important to review the historical context and understand how an effective and active government can advance the greater good of American society.

Some of the nation’s most iconic leaders used the power of government to advance the country’s economy. Early in our history, Alexander Hamilton visited the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, NJ, and foresaw how nature could be harnessed to create a strong industry. As Treasury Secretary under George Washington, he mobilized the National Bank to mobilize the economy and stabilize the nation’s credit (for more on this, listen to the first cabinet battle in the Hamilton soundtrack, as well as the denouement when his enemies Jefferson and Madison give him posthumous praise for this plan).

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was another example of activist government, as many argued he went well beyond his power (by freeing slaves in states under rebellion). Moreover, Lincoln’s preoccupation before the Civil War was the country’s economic development—his party built roads and rail networks, and established Homestead Laws to help people settle western lands.

Theodore Roosevelt used presidential power to attack the power of big trusts, protect consumers, and develop national parks. Franklin Roosevelt famously instituted a range of big government New Deal programs and mobilized the country to fight World War II.

Washington, Lincoln, TR, FDR—they are generally considered our greatest presidents. And their policies led to economic expansion and/or avoided economic collapse. For those who argue that big government policies are somehow socialist, be aware that FDR’s New Deal and activist government preserved the capitalist structure. Arguably, FDR’s immediate predecessors (Coolidge, and Hoover), with their laissez-faire policies, contributed significantly to the Great Depression and put our country at an existential risk.

This is not to say that big government is the answer to everything. Over time, entrenched bureaucrats can build power bases of their own, and cumbersome regulations do need to be reviewed on an ongoing basis. But many of these government workers are experts in their fields and have crafted regulation, based on enacted legislation, to protect American citizens—against such dangers as environmental pollution, nuclear waste, economic exploitation, and civil rights violations. Or take the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a government program which has helped keep children healthy for two decades.

To close, here is a review of five key areas in which a strong, effective, and egalitarian government presence can make a positive difference in people’s lives:

  • Sustaining a diverse, collaborative, and effective educational system

  • Preserving the civil rights of all groups, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national background

  • Ensuring that all citizens have the right to vote without impediment, and that elections are conducted freely and fairly

  • Investing in productive economic development and infrastructure, and maintaining a strong and fair economic system

  • Preserving the environment for ourselves and for future generations

These should be uncontroversial goals that would benefit from liberal or conservative solutions. Those who advocate against governmental involvement in these issues give the game away too easily, by disregarding facts and abdicating responsibility.

So make sure to read between the lines in any news story. When you hear people rail against government and seek only private sector, free market strategies, please understand that their way is limited and one-sided, and that there are historically proven methods to advance national interests.

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