Pop Quiz: Who said that? Abbie Hoffman? Randy Weaver?
Timothy McVeigh? Some other anarchistic militia nut?
Wrong! It was Ronald Reagan, fomenting rebellion against
the very government over which he presided. Aw, c'mon. You knew
it all along, didn't you? After all, this was the President who
told us, in his first inaugural address, that "government is not the
solution, government is the problem." Why should we then be surprised
to find him quoting our founding fathers: "taxation without
representation is tyranny!" -- conveniently dropping the second and
third words of that war cry? (The opening quotation, by the way, is
entirely accurate: it was transcribed from Reagan's voice, broadcast
over National Public Radio, May 30, 1985).
When the late Barry Goldwater said such things thirty years ago,
they were considered beyond the pale of conventional political
debate. Today conventional journalistic wisdom is telling us that
Goldwater's triumphant followers have long-since accomplished and
moved beyond his platform. Everywhere, "Big Government" is anathema
and in retreat. "Anything government can do, the free market can do
better." ("What?! You don't agree? What are you, some kind of
The triumph of the anti-government message is so complete that it
has retreated from public debate and has become a virtual
presupposition of our public discourse - an article of faith so
"obvious" that very few even bother to question it.
For example: We often hear on the air or in casual
conversation, the remark "who can
trust the government when it can't even deliver the mail on time!"
Surely that remark, which has become a cliché, deserves some exposure as
a Grade-A bad rap! We hear it so often, that we
don't pause even to think about it. In point of fact, the US Postal
Service is renowned the world over as one of the most reliable and
well-functioning institutions under the sun. Now be honest: when is
the last time that one of your letters was really "lost in
the mail?" (Remember, this isn't one of your creditors asking this).
Frankly, I can not remember when this last happened to me. And when
you mailed that package last December 21, convinced that it could not
possibly be delivered by Christmas, weren't you amazed to find out
that it was? Don't we all, in fact, simply take the reliability of
the Postal Service for granted - and for good reason? And yet, when
that "can't deliver the mail on time" slander is made, rarely is it
And so, despite abundant and familiar refuting evidence, we now
have the new conventional wisdom: "private initiative and market
mechanisms will always come up with better solutions than
the government!" Oh, really! "Often better," to be sure.
Perhaps even "usually better." But "always better?" Who
would you prefer to assure you that your food is uncontaminated and
that your drugs are safe and effective? Private industry or the Food
and Drug Administration? Who would you trust to keep the public
airshed and water supply clean? Private industry or the EPA? Who
would you rather have as the owners of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the
other national parks? Yourselves along with all your fellow citizens,
or MCA and Disney Inc.? "Always better?" Even the most
thoroughgoing libertarians concede that there is a "public interest"
in protecting the lives, liberties and property of individual
citizens, and thus that, at the very least, the police, the military
and the courts can not legitimately be privatized.
But by granting even this little, the libertarians give themselves
away. If it is the legitimate function of government to protect the
lives, liberties and property of its citizens, then it is clearly the
function of government to regulate the activities of private
individuals and corporations. After all, industrialists do not like
to be told that the internal organs of unconsenting citizens are
inappropriate catchments of their chemical wastes. Meat packers don't
like to have government inspectors around while they are making
sausages. Drug companies do not like to be told that they can't put
opium in their cough medicine, and that they cannot put a drug on the
market before it has been proven both safe and effective. Mine owners
have fewer qualms than government inspectors about putting their
workers' lives in peril. Broadcasters don't like to be told that the
public airwaves that they are freely given must contain some "public
service" content, or that opinions other than their own deserve a
To all of the above private interests, "big government" is
unquestionably a nuisance and a financial burden, as it goes about
its appropriate business of acting in behalf of the rest of us.
But since "the rest of us" have been denied access to the airwaves
(due to the demise of "The Fairness Doctrine"), and since, in A. J.
Liebling's words, "freedom of the press belongs to those who can
afford to own a printing press," and finally, since our Congress has been
sold to the highest bidders ("cash is speech," saith the Supremes in Buckley), the anti-government crowd has had the public
podium pretty much to themselves, and thus even the plain
beneficiaries of government protection have been persuaded to join
cry to "Kill the Umpire!"
Never mind that the moment the umpires leave the field, the game
is over, and nobody wins! This is true with every organized team
sport, and as history demonstrates conclusively, it is true of all
human societies that have attained a civilized condition.
The greatest strength of the anti-government message lies in the
fact that much of it is true. "Aren't governments shot-through with
waste, fraud, and abuse?" Of course they are! And so too is every
human institution under the sun, including corporations. But the
inference from imperfection to uselessness and even
malignancy is, to say the least of it, a "stretch." No
Police Department can completely eliminate crime, and no Fire
Department can completely eliminate fires. They are imperfect
institutions. Do we then propose their abolition? Certainly not!
Instead, we strive constantly to improve them.
So it is with governments. The founders of the American republic
were well aware of the abuses of government, having successfully
struggled to overthrow a foreign tyranny. And so they tried, with the
Articles of Confederation, a minimalist government - which failed. Mindful of
this failure, James Madison, "the father of the constitution" wrote
in Federalist 41:
It cannot have escaped those who have attended with candor to the arguments
employed against the extensive powers of the government, that the authors of
them have very little considered how far these powers were necessary means of
attaining a necessary end. They have chosen rather to dwell on the
inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political
advantages; and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power
or trust, of which a beneficial use can be made. This method of handling the
subject cannot impose on the good sense of the people of America. It may
display the subtlety of the writer; it may open a boundless field for rhetoric
and declamation; it may inflame the passions of the unthinking, and may
confirm the prejudices of the misthinking: but cool and candid people will at
once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy
in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at
least of the greater, not the perfect, good; and that in every political
institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion
which may be misapplied and abused. They will see, therefore, that in all
cases where power is to be conferred, the point first to be decided is,
whether such a power be necessary to the public good; as the next will be, in
case of an affirmative decision, to guard as effectually as possible against a
perversion of the power to the public detriment.
Clearly, Madison could be speaking directly to the
"libertarian-anarchists" of today.
Heeding the good advice of Madison, the Founding Fathers adopted a Constitution for a government of laws, with
checks and balances, and with a Bill of Rights explicitly stating the
limits of that government ("Congress shall make no law..."). However,
even before the Bill of Rights and the body of the Constitution
itself, we find the Preamble, which clearly recognizes that
government has a function: namely, "... to form a more perfect Union,
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the
common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings
of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..." Nowhere in that
document, did the founders say or suggest that all this could be
accomplished entirely through the unregulated activity of
self-serving "economic persons" in the market place. Least of all did
they indicate any endorsement of Margaret Thatcher's infamous
observation that "there is no such thing as society, there are
individual men and women, and there are families."
True to the spirit of Thatcher's social atomism, we are now
casually dismantling a civic and political order that is the envy of
world - the sort of civil society that the Russians and the former
Soviet republics are desperately attempting to achieve. And so we
find such spectacularly successful institutions as the Voice of
America, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug
Administration, the National Science Foundation, under attack in the
thoughtless and relentless assault on "big government." Furthermore, "privatization" has torn the heart out of the public interest content
of Public Broadcasting. Support for our common cultural heritage is
likewise under attack, as so-called "conservatives" in Congress have
gutted the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. And only
a spirited defense from the scholarly institutions saved the Social
Science and the Ethics and Values Studies programs of the National
Science Foundation from fiscal knives of the "conservatives."
All the while, deregulation and privatization march along: today
the penal system and the public schools (which, a century ago,
facilitated e pluribus unum), next - who knows? Perhaps the
courts. After all, even the Congress has at last become a commodity,
as the Supreme Court proclaims, in the Buckley decision,
"one dollar, one vote" - neglecting the words carved above its
entrance: "Equal Justice Under Law."
Amidst the logorrhea of cable TV commentary on the Clinton
scandals, we recorded (from PBS) this gem of an observation by Michael
I think the major accomplishment in politics in the past
20 years has been the destruction of the public sphere. Most of
the people elected to Congress in both parties, intentionally or
otherwise, [are] doing the bidding of their highest
donors. A major goal of the corporate interests of this country is
to undermine the public sphere so that there would be no control
over corporations as they pursues their agendas. Over the course
of the past 20 years they have been incredibly successful in
discrediting politics, and that is a major accomplishment. When
you watch Dan Burton today, or when you listen to the Lewinsky
scandal, or any of this stuff, none of the significant issues
facing our country are discussed.
He is right, of course. Media and public obsession with our
President's sexual escapades crippled his office, while the
crowning achievement of our Congress at that time was the renaming of the
Washington airport. "No matter," said the "conservatives." "The less
government, the better."
With the withering of civil society and popular government, and
the triumph of privatization and market forces, we face the end of
citizenship followed by the ultimate commodification of the
individual - as a producer of wealth and consumer of goods. "Society"
(to Margaret Thatcher, a "myth") will then be transformed into a
market place - and nothing more.
If this is to be the outcome of the now-triumphant "conservatism,"
then this so-called "conservatism" is nothing of the kind: it is
radicalism plain and simple, aimed at the roots of our
personal autonomy, our social contract and our civil society.
We are embarked upon a perilous course. Perhaps the most urgent
question before our body politic today is whether we will have the
collective wisdom to pause, look carefully ahead and then reflect,
before we travel on.
Copyright, 1998, by Ernest Partridge