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The Fantasy of Small Government

March 24, 2010

The other day, my good friend Mark posted some doom-and-gloom thoughts regarding health care reform on Facebook. Suffice to say, a pretty intense discussion followed suit.

Toward (what is presently) the end of the thread, Mark asked what had become of my small government beliefs, and if I advocated for small government how was it that I came to support Obama.

Rather than clog up an already busy thread with a long-winded response, I’ve elected to post my answer here instead.

So, without further adieu…

Matt – I love you man, and I applaud you standing up for your opinions on this one. However I am perplexed that you keep on saying you want a small government. I have known you along time – (after all you’re a good dude) and I know that you really believed in small government at one point.

Fair enough. At one point yes, I really did believe in the pursuit of small government. That also happened to be back during my college days, when I was still living in a parent-funded bubble.

Over the past several years, my perspective has changed. I’ve gained a better sense of how the world works (and doesn’t work). I’ve stepped back and questioned my assumptions. I’ve learned through bitter experience and reflection.

And now, while I say there is nothing I’d like better than a small government that stays out of the way, I also know that, realistically, it ain’t gonna happen. You can’t govern a nation of 300 million people with a small government. You just can’t. And to attempt to do so by scaling back government services and expenditures – schools, highways, Medicare, the CDC, the student loan program, et cetera – would be disastrous.

I tend to think of it like a car. People bitch about how heavy today’s cars have become, and how they’ve become so computerized you can’t work on them yourself. But what would you give up to make them lighter and simpler? Seat belts? Airbags? Fuel injection? Variable valve timing and turbocharging and direct injection technologies that deliver greater efficiency AND more power? Air conditioning? Side impact beams?

And yet you knowingly support and voted for a guy who had the most liberal big government voting record in the entire senate. Then once he is in office, you support this sort of sweeping big government legislation – your stated desire for small government just doesn’t seem to add up. And if this is just a hiccup, then at what point w should the USA return to its small government ways?

I didn’t vote for Obama based on his voting record or his appeals to bipartisanship or even promises of change. I voted for his temperament. I voted for a pragmatic man who takes a long view of things at the expense of winning the daily news cycle, and who doesn’t kick the problems facing our nation down the road. And so far, I’ve gotten the president I voted for.

As far as the United States returning to its small government ways…to a large extent that ship sailed in 1865, and again in 1933, and again with the Cold War. We can’t return to the days of Jeffersonian Republicanism any more than the Roman Empire under Trajan or Hadrian could have backpedaled and reconstituted the Republic.

You say “I don’t think the government should have any role in determining what an individual can or cannot do in their private life, so long as they don’t impede upon the rights of others..” How does the decision upon whether to buy health care not apply to your statement above? It’s a personal and private decision which does not impede on the rights of others…

You are correct. The decision to purchase or not purchase health insurance is a personal one. But it does impact others through the burden of having to pay for emergency and other medical care for the uninsured. In a perfect world, no, there would not be an individual mandate. Personally, I’m no great fan, but if it is part and parcel of guaranteeing people access to health insurance that won’t abandon them when they really need it, I think that’s a sacrifice for the common good that is entirely worth it. I would also note that, instead of bitching and whining and saying no all the time, GOP legislators could have worked with the Democrats in the House and Senate to figure out a better solution.

by the way, don’t read the statement above a as personal attack..i am literally just perplexed…. if you feel the way you feel about small government, i can’t fathom why you vote for the most liberal person int he senate. If it is because he said he would reach across the aisle and bring this country together, and you believed him, ..then fair enough. Obama DID say he would do so and he is a persuasive speaker. But now he is in office it is abundantly clear to see that he hasn’t reached across the aisle, but instead he along with pelosi reaid, et al is forcing unwanted legislation down the people’s throats. So shouldn’t you should be outraged right now?

I believe I’ve already addressed my stance on small government and on why I voted for Obama, so I don’t think there’s much need to tread that ground again.

But I will say that, from where I sit, Obama has reached across the aisle, multiple times. As did Max Baucus when he was crafting the Senate bill last summer. Bipartisanship requires, well, bipartisanship, and when one side digs in its heels and refuses to negotiate in anything like a constructive manner, there’s only so much you can do. Though I would also add that the health care reform bill that passed the House included OVER 200 REPUBLICAN AMENDMENTS.

And yeah…I am outraged. Not at Obama, and not even at Pelosi or Reid, but at the sheer stubborn intractability of the GOP.

It’s an outrage borne out of what I guess you could call historical perspective. See, the GOP in its present state reminds me of none so much as the boni of the Late Roman Republic, the cohort of conservative aristocratic senators, self-styled “good men”. Much like the GOP today, the boni pined for a simpler, nobler past of traditional values while at the same time engaging in rampant corruption, refusing to admit any errors or mistakes, ever, and opposing any reform, no matter how sensible. Over time, the boni became more and more intractable, and their tactics of total opposition ultimately led to a situation where some guy named Caesar felt he had no choice but to cross a little river in northern Italy called the Rubicon.

I often wonder what might have been had the stodgy old senators listened to Tiberius Gracchus and his ideas about land reform instead of escalating the situation out of their own greed and fear of change.

Now…I’m not saying we’re heading toward civil war and autocracy, but I am seeing the same shortsightedness, the same total opposition in place of the typical give and take of republican politics, that led to the unraveling of the Roman Republic.

And so now I guess it’s my turn to ask you, Mark, how your political stance has changed since you voted for Gore in 2000, since I, too, am literally just perplexed that you can support a party that has become as dogmatic and intractable as the GOP. Perhaps it’s a function of our different careers, our different circles, the fact that I’ve stayed in Austin while you returned to Dallas…whatever the case, I’m curious.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bonnie MacDougall permalink
    March 25, 2010 7:50 am

    I admire your writing and your choice to direct your energy to argument-making rather than frothing and foaming at the mouth with a political perspective spitting forth in sprayed droplets. It’s impossible to have discourse with intractable folk who often erupt in spittage.

    However, I have questions that arise when I read:

    “And now, while I say there is nothing I’d like better than a small government that stays out of the way, I also know that, realistically, it ain’t gonna happen. You can’t govern a nation of 300 million people with a small government. You just can’t.”

    My question is: Can you govern a nation of 300 million people with a federal government? The track record of efficaciously-run federal programs is grim: social security, Medicare, Medicaid, the post office, Department of Education mandates. Put the outcome of these services on a CV, and you would not get a call back. No one is demanding the services of the federal government except the federal government.

    Prognosis for improvement is bleak: Lukoil is making plans to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Where are we when we spout on about withdrawing ourselves from foreign oil-dependency? OK, the Gulf of Mexico is very beautiful, and so are the two coasts of Florida, but then there is the oil sitting off the coast of New Jersey. What a tangled-paperweb the EPA doth weave, and to what real end?

    Big things generally go unchallenged, and this breeds room for corruption. The Big Dig in Boston was supposed to cost $1 billion, and at this point has billed us $14 billion, and have you been up there to Boston lately and driven through, around, under, between, within and among the chain-link fence and signage they have taped around their city? It looks like a permanent modern art display.

    I realize that I’m not offering a solution to problems about making healthcare better, and there have to be solutions out there in hands that are more reliable than the federal government. So, please, somebody, raise your hand.

  2. Doogs permalink*
    March 25, 2010 8:33 am

    Fantastic points, Bonnie.

    I should probably also make it clear that, while I don’t think returning to some past ideal of small government is practical, I don’t have any love of the federal government, either.

    But…I’ve reached a point where I don’t particularly trust the free markets to chart the right course, either. And the only thing that can check the rapacity of private enterprise is the federal government. Neither is ideal, but operating opposite one another, I think they can push against each other and, in that tension, create a stable platform.

    Now, if it were up to me, states would play a greater role around the periphery, innovating in education and healthcare and social legislation, and some mechanism would exist where different programs could be evaluated and adopted on a state-by-state level without necessarily bubbling up to the federal government. We’re kind of seeing this unfold with issues like gay marriage and, yes, health care (Massachussetts and Maryland being two examples), but I’d really like to see states play greater roles as incubators, and see those roles publicized more widely (perhaps with a federal testbed fund that would allow different states to test different approaches).

    Going back to the car analogy, I don’t think it’s viable to get rid of modern conveniences and safety mechanisms, but it is possible to refine them and make them work better. Heck, Mini is apparently going to be moving from 4-cylinder engines to 3-cylinder engines when the next-generation Cooper shows up in 2012. The new mill will be smaller, lighter, more efficient and, thanks to new technologies, more powerful than the present engine. And overall, it’ll make the next Mini lighter than the current one. There’s no reason we can’t take the same approach with government, but it will take concerted effort to compel power lobbies – public and private – to adopt those changes.

    And that concerted effort starts with us.

  3. Bonnie MacDougall permalink
    March 25, 2010 10:35 am

    “States” was exactly the word in the back of my mind, but casting an eye about my neck of the woods leads to only one bright spot that I can identify. At Rutger’s Law a few years ago, the graduation speaker was Cory Booker. What a fine speech! Like you, he takes his anchoring from antiquity, which he engages with a reflective perspective on modern issues. But it was only a speech, and is Newark clean yet? Anyway I don’t live there but in a neighboring state whose representatives are like potato head persons who have two sets of smiles but no ears.

    I love the Mini analogy; it’s just right. So before you write your next very fine historical novel, please first write the instruction manual for ordinary citizens who wish to be positive, not cynical, and who are willing to work hard, and already do, but who truly do not know who to turn to to work with or how to engage in the concerted effort that you mention above.

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