Small government? For whose benefit?

We hear it every election cycle. There’s too much government involvement in our everyday lives. If only the government could be reduced in size and influence, all would be well with the world. Grover Norquist, the founder of American for Tax Reform, famously said of our federal government, “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” (Why Mr. Norquist resorted to use such violent imagery in his rhetoric is unknown, other than to create a lasting impression.) Politicians and pundits make great pains to repeat the “small government” mantra in front of every camera and microphone they can find.

The message is clear: Conservatives stand for small government… and anyone who thinks otherwise is just trying to make you dependent. But have you ever taken a moment to consider the speaker’s intent? How does the message compare to the actions?

As examples of how they would reduce the size and scope of government, they push for lower tax rates and less regulations for corporations, often peppering their arguments with keywords like “job creators”. Getting government out of the way, they say, would provide a great cost-savings to these companies. In turn, they would be more willing to expand their operations, resulting in hiring more employees and bringing more prosperity to all.

These, they say, would be some of the benefits of smaller government. And this is why they continue to push the message. What’s good for those at the top is good for all, they say. On the surface, you could be persuaded if that were the end of the argument. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see such happiness throughout our economy?

The reality? The Conservative movement — at least those who make the most noise on the subject — only want a small government when it comes to business. The noisemakers who beat the drums of small government are simultaneously seeking to expand government’s intrusion elsewhere. They want to expand or create restrictions on the everyday lives of individuals.

How could that be? If the goal is smaller government, wouldn’t that mean more freedoms for each of us? Hardly.

Those same Conservatives want government to intervene in our most personal matters. They want to create a nationwide definition of marriage rather than allow each state to decide (which is ironic since another Conservative message is that the feds are trying to usurp powers that are best left to the states). In defiance of the First Amendment, they want government to prevent construction of some houses of worship while granting certain privileges to other faiths. They want to impose restrictions on what two consenting adults want to do in the privacy of their own bedrooms. And they want to make it harder for people to vote. How do the small government worshippers explain their desires to grow the size of our federal system to police these matters? In truth, they don’t. Instead they avoid the question and steer the conversation back to how they are dead certain that government just needs to get out of the way of large-scale business.

I can remember when it was considered right and proper for the government to keep us safe from the devastating effects of pollution from factories that dump filth into our waters and our air. It was a Republican president, after all, who established the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, the EPA is targeted for elimination by the small government crowd.

We all want to know that the food we eat is safe, free from contaminants and within common-sense freshness guidelines. But how can we be confident with our food and drink unless suppliers are subjected to regular inspections?

We expect our hard-earned money to be safe, so we need regulators to keep a watchful eye on the banks. We want to be confident that our cars aren’t built with faulty parts, so rigorous standards are in place. We need to know that the products we buy are manufactured without dangerous parts and materials, so imported goods are carefully screened and domestic manufacturing is kept under a watchful eye. All these and more are the responsibility of a strong government that is big enough to handle these tasks.

In fact, knowing that we have government agencies acting upon these regulations gives us — you and me — power. We can stand up and demand safety and value, knowing that the government that we created and paid for has our backs. Take away the government’s strength and you remove whatever leverage the average American may hold. British writer George Monbiot has said, “Deregulation is a transfer of power from the trodden to the treading.” To put it another way: do away with government oversight and the little guy is left vulnerable and unprotected.

Face it. We are a nation of more than 314 million individuals. Without a strong central government, we’d be facing little more than anarchy. Sure, there is waste and inefficiency within our federal government. But doesn’t it make sense to fix what’s broken rather than simply throw it away?

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald, 7/3/14)

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