Sometimes it’s hard to tell left from right. As I write this, the Republicans, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Democrats, are scrapping internally over Iraq and immigration. Some Democrats want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq; others are willing to “stay the course,” wherever it may lead. Some Republicans want to make illegal immigration a felony – although how we will manage to incarcerate approximately 11 million more people has not been made clear. Others want an unlimited international supply of $6 an hour maids, busboys and leaf-rakers.
But the most confusing blurring of political differences has to do with the size of government. Traditionally, or at least according to time-honored cliché, liberals stood for “big government,” and conservatives stood against it. Reagan’s men wanted to “kill the beast” of government (not noticing how much Carter’s budget cuts had already starved it), and Gingrich’s gang eventually forced Clinton to declare the “era of big government” over. It was Clinton – not Reagan or Bush I—who shrunk welfare into a program of limited wage supplementation for severely underpaid single mothers.
So how are we to understand the fact that it is under Bush II – surely the most rightwing president ever – that government has swollen to a condition of morbid obesity? Clinton left the federal government with a budget surplus of $237 billion. We now face a deficit of over $400 billion, and it’s not all accounted for by Bush’s lavish tax cuts for the wealthy. Government, especially the federal government, is piling on the pounds as we speak.
What’s expanded, of course, is not the “nanny state” that Gingrich once mocked. Welfare as we knew it is gone; Medicaid is under steady assault; we have no guaranteed access to health care; student loans and grants are facing massive cuts. The only nanny-ish or “compassionate” move the Bush administration has made is toward partial Medicare coverage of prescription drugs, and that is still stumbling to get to its feet.
The part of government that’s been swelling non-stop is the part that, generally speaking, deals with violence or, to put it in more conventional terms, “national security.” Since 9/11, the military has ballooned; one recent estimate of the total cost of the Iraq war is $3 trillion. We now have not only the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon, but the Department of Homeland Security, a Director of National Intelligence, and a National Counterterrorism Center, along with a few more that may have escaped my own feeble surveillance efforts.
As the right has long claimed, government agencies tend to suffer from a bureaucratic imperative to expand, and our national security agencies are no exception. They jostle for tax dollars, fight turf wars, even spy on each other. As we now know from the Valerie Plame Wilson spy-outing case, they may go so far as to try to discredit each other. Bush, as it turns out, authorized the leak because he was mad at the CIA for refusing to produce the Iraq-related “intelligence” he wanted.
The proposition that our bloated national security apparatus has made us more secure is open to debate, if not to outright derision. The TSA makes us take off our shoes but doesn’t bother to check the cargo in the hold. Our ports are leaky; our public health system – which we’re depending on in case of biological attack – is a shambles. As for the war and all the attendant detentions, “renderings,” and torturings: They’ve not only fanned Islamist terrorism worldwide, but earned us worldwide hatred and contempt, including from former allies.
So, thanks to Reagan, Clinton and Bush, we now have a government with vastly expanded military and surveillance functions and sadly atrophied helping functions. Imagine, for an awkward zoological analogy, a lioness with grossly enlarged claws and teeth but no mammary glands. If you’re a working class kid, like former Iraq heroine Jessica Lynch, the government will probably not fund your college education, but it will welcome you into its military. We saw how dysfunctionally deformed the government has become when Katrina struck New Orleans: There was no food for the people trapped in the Convention Center, but there were plenty of soldiers to keep them from getting out and feeding themselves in the supermarkets.
Traditionally the right opposed “big government” in the name of freedom. Whenever, for example, you mention the need for universal health insurance, someone is bound to say: But we don’t big government running our health care!– as if we have any more freedom under the Republic of Aetna or some other giant corporate insurance bureaucracy. There’s another problem with big government-equals-unfreedom line of thought: Without government, what’s to protect us from Big Capitalism – employers, for example, who want to default on pensions, dump toxins, or keep the factory doors locked?
But if freedom’s what’s at issue, what should really make the right writhe is the preternatural growth of state “security” and surveillance functions. Decades ago, conservatives argued against Medicare as a step toward socialism and hence, in their view, totalitarianism. So far, Medicare hasn’t enslaved anyone, but the fabled “knock on the door” is more likely to come than at any time since the 1920s. It won’t be a social worker worried about your children’s welfare. It’ll be some government functionary who suspects you of manufacturing meth or corresponding with Osama bin Laden.
Could we agree on one thing? It isn’t the sheer size of government that matters, so much as what it’s doing – or, as we now say-- what it’s “tasked” with. Those tasks should include both providing security and ensuring freedom, and a government that can’t do both is a government that has to be changed.