Matthews’s evidence for this hatred is the conservatives’ harping on the large national debt, which is about equal to the GDP, and deficit spending, which is close to half of total federal spending, and their opposition to higher taxes to shrink the deficit. To Matthews, expressing concern about those numbers and opposing further spending, borrowing, and taxing is proof of hatred for government. A devastating piece of evidence was Republican votes against raising the debt ceiling even though the package contained future spending cuts. (Of course, they were not real cuts, but merely small decreases in the rate of spending growth.) The symbol of conservative hatred for government, Matthews said, came during the last Republican presidential debate, when all the candidates raised their hands to indicate they would oppose a deficit-reduction package that contained $10 in spending “cuts” for every $1 in increased revenues.
Leaving aside the question of how sincere most Republican conservatives are when they rail against deficit spending, I would like Matthews and his ilk to answer a simple question:
How can a group of politicians and political activists be said to hate government, or “Washington,” when they enthusiastically support: the U.S. government’s global bullying; invasions, occupations, and endless wars; secret CIA prisons; torture as an interrogation technique; extraordinary rendition in which suspects are sent to foreign countries for torture by brutal dictatorships; support for “friendly” foreign autocrats and other oppressive regimes; the USA PATRIOT Act, including warrantless surveillance; national-security letters; the military-industrial complex; the war on drug users/sellers/makers; energy independence; intellectual-property enforcement; restrictions on immigrants and employer sanctions; consumption taxes; federal marriage regulation; and corporate welfare? I’m sure I’ve left some things out.
No one who embraces these liberty-killing actions can claim to be for small government, much less against government altogether. Most conservatives are as much for overpowering government as so-called liberals are. They just want the government to be overpowering in different matters, although that is less true than it once was. Conservatives have a cultural animosity to a welfare state that seems to cater to low-income people; apparently for them nothing is worse than an immigrant’s going on the dole. On the other hand, they have little problem with middle-class welfare, such as Social Security and Medicare. One of their arguments against Obamacare was that it includes a half-trillion-dollar cut in Medicare. True, they sometimes talk about giving a role in these programs to private companies, but that’s driven more by a pro-business orientation and a desire for efficiency than by any desire to end the programs.
So-called liberals, on the other hand, would expand all welfare- state programs while keeping the power “in-house” rather than farming it out to business — they prefer government bureaucrats to corporate bureaucrats. There might have been a time when “liberals” could be said to oppose the global military establishment, but those days are long gone. When did you last hear a member of President Obama’s party criticize his war program, which is virtually indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s?
So the two dominant forces in American politics favor domineering government and, necessarily, a smaller sphere for individual freedom and free markets. Why, then, do Matthews & Co. insist that conservatives hate government? A reasonable explanation is that this strategy is intended to scare people into thinking there is no enlightened alternative to big-government pro-empire Progressivism. They can’t hit conservatives on foreign policy and civil liberties — because they hold the same views! So they have to convince Americans that conservatives would tear down everything they know and love. It’s false, but it may be effective.
What’s lacking is a true pro-liberty, anti-power alternative. Actually, it’s not lacking. There are plenty of people promoting the libertarian vision. But the conservative and “liberal” intelligentsia have little interest in letting the American people in on it.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) and editor of The Freeman magazine.