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Are Liberals for Big Government?

July 14, 2010

Yesterday, Ezra Klein did us all the favor of breaking down government size as a philosophy in terms of modern liberalism.  I think that at some level people know how the Left and Right really feel about the size of government, but current political discourse leads them to take certain things for granted.  Klein:

But like a lot of people, I actually don’t have an abstract preference for either bigger government or smaller government. If we made the Defense Department a lot smaller, or reformed the health-care system so that we were getting a deal more akin to European countries, or got the federal government out of farm subsidies, that would be fine with me, even as the government would shrink. A lot of conservatives believe, I think, that their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s philosophical preference for big government. But that’s not true: Their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s practical preference for larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.

The problem here, per usual, is oversimplification.  Conservatives have basically had it drilled into their psyche over the past fifty years that liberals are fans of big government, and not without good reason.  Liberals, as Klein admits, are willing to accept greater federal centralization and intervention as long as it “make[s] sense”.  The point is that when you “don’t have an abstract preference for either bigger government or smaller government”, then you’re more prone to accept federal intrusion as means to “fixing” problems in our political system, i.e. big government.

If a conservative actually sat down and talked to a liberal about government, the former would quickly realize that the latter isn’t a particularly huge fan of Soviet-esque centralization and basically has a mindset like the one Klein describes, but due to, well, the entire 20th century, conservatives have skipped that step because of the liberal pursuit of an agenda that necessitates big government — think income taxes, the Federal Reserve, prohibition (yes, I’m calling that one progressive because it was at the time and still is), the New Deal, the IRS, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, affirmative action, environmentalism, and more recently, stimulus spending, the ACA, cap-and-trade (or, worse, EPA regulation of carbon emissions), and financial regulation (including consumer protection).  All of these things may just “make sense”, but they are also huge expansions of federal power.  Thus the meme: if you don’t have a preference about the size of government, then you’re for big government.

That’s not to say that liberals like Klein never prefer to “fix” anything via smaller government — I’m inclined to believe him there.  But if he’s going to make that claim on behalf of the Left, then he’s going to have to come up with, like, an example of that.  The health-care law we just got was supposed to get us “a deal more akin to European countries”, and its pricetag is around $1 trillion just in the first decade (yeah, but it reduces the deficit blah blah blah, the size of the bill still matters).  Plus, even if you were, you know, alive for the past year and a half, then I bet you still don’t remember all those liberal ideas to fix our health-care system that involved government becoming smaller.  That’s because there were none — liberals generally believe that smaller government can’t fix health care.  As far as farm subsidy goes, total federal spending towards that end totaled just $12.2 billion in 2008.  That’s not nothing — I should say that I’m in favor of ending farm subsidies in principle — but it is less than, say, that painless $19 billion that the FinReg bill would have cost banks (and, by extension, taxpayers) over time had Scott Brown not objected.

The only two liberal policy goals I can think of that involve decreasing the size of government are military spending and increased immigration, and the latter is iffy because a) I’m not convinced that the quantity of manpower necessary to prevent undocumented immigration is any greater than the quantity of manpower necessary to actually document the millions of aliens that are already/migrating here and b) I’m not convinced that Democrats — the politicians, not the constituency — aren’t just trying to import voters.  To that end, it seems like the only area of government liberals want to shrink as a byproduct of their desired policy is defense.  Okay, if you want to be Europe, that’s your preference.  But if increasing the size of government at literally every turn is your idea of “practical”, then to say that liberals aren’t for big government just isn’t true.

P.S. Re: Klein’s point that “the conservative preference for small government is weaker than it might seem” because government got bigger under Reagan and Dubya and smaller under Clinton, I would say three things: Reagan had a Democratic Congress, Clinton had a Republican Congress, and Dubya-era Republicans weren’t conservatives.  ‘Nuff said.

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