Tuesday, February 10, 2009
It is essential to keep in mind...that government doesn't only regulate people's lives. By providing the institutional conditions without which modern civilization and economic activity could not exist, government is substantially responsible for the kinds of lives that people can lead.---Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel
At Balkinization, Jack Balkin convincingly argues that even the Republicans, crass ideological rhetoric to the contrary, are committed to "big government:"
Small government conservatism is an excellent slogan, but it corresponds neither to contemporary realities nor to the actual policies of either party. None of the Republican presidents since the New Deal have really limited the size of government; all have presided over its increase, and in some cases (Nixon and Bush), the growth of government has been quite remarkable. [....]
Despite the Republican rhetoric of small government, the actual Republican political hegemony of the past three decades has not really been directed to reducing the size of government. Rather, it has been about lowering taxes, especially taxes for large businesses, limiting government regulatory oversight, especially for large businesses, and increasing subsidies and government expenditures on subjects that Republicans have sought to subsidize, including, among other things, various business interests and the defense industries.
The Nixon Administration consolidated and expanded the Welfare State; the Reagan Administration ran enormous deficits; and the George W. Bush Administration converted a federal surplus into enormous deficits while creating new bureaucracies in education, health care, and Homeland Security and helping to construct the national surveillance state. While it was doing all this, it also expended about a trillion dollars on an ill-advised war in Iraq. Ironically, its particularly poor stewardship of big government has created an emergency that will probably lead to even more government.
You might think that an anti-tax and anti-regulatory philosophy necessarily means smaller government. But it does not, and indeed, the Bush Administration has shown us how to grow government while simultaneously reducing taxes and crippling regulatory oversight. [....]
So it would help if the Republicans opposed to the "stimulus" plan would overcome their collective self-deception and states of denial and concede once and for all the incontrovertible fact that "government is good!" The anti-tax rhetoric assumes, as Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel remind us in The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (2002), that
pre-tax market outcomes are presumptively just, and that tax justice is a question of what justifies departures from that baseline, [a view that] appears to flow from an unreflective or 'everyday' libertarianism about property rights. Though a consistent application of sophisticated libertarian political theory leads to deeply implausible results that hardly anyone actually accepts, in its naive, everyday version, libertarianism is taken for granted in much tax policy analysis.
If we believed market outcomes were in fact presumptively just, we would not look to government "to provide welfare support to those of its subjects who are destitute, without access to food, shelter, or health care," in short, we would not subscribe to the animating rationale behind the Welfare State, nor would those in the affluent states of the northern hemisphere still be living and--globally and thus comparatively speaking--flourishing in "the real worlds of welfare capitalism."
"Everyday libertarianism" also unfairly trades on an untenable picture of the marketplace as set apart from "the government," ignoring the fact that
There is no market without government and no government without taxes; and what type of market there is depends on law and policy decisions that government must make. In the absence of a legal system supported by taxes, there couldn't be money, banks, corporations, stock exchanges, patents, or a modern market economy--none of the institutions that make possible the existence of almost all contemporary forms of income and wealth. (Murphy and Nagel: p. 32)
As Balkin notes above, the anti-regulatory rhetoric serves the narrow interests of casino capitalism and transnational corporations over and above public interests and the common good. And Murphy and Nagel pellucidly and patiently spell out the political virtue inscribed in the prescriptive admonition that "societal fairness, rather than tax fairness, should be the value that guides tax policy."
Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, Douglas Amy, provides us with an unabashed and "unapologetic defense of [government as] a vital institution" at his website, Government is Good. And be sure to check out his laugh-out-loud satirical video, "Who Needs Big Government?"
However belatedly, with Marcus G. Raskin in The Common Good: Its Politics, Policies and Philosophy (1986), this is a propitious period in which to ask ourselves the following questions:
In a time when so many of us feel thrown, or alone and sinking, and in a time when our institutions and knowledge seem to reflect our problems rather than offer any cure or amelioration to them, is there any sense at all in talking about the common good for and among us? In an age of narcissism, selfishness and inattention, is there any value to proclaiming the need for a common good beyond class, or family or self--and trying to show how it just might be achieved?
In an age of deformed institutions and economic turbulence, is there any sense to reinvigorating our social and economic institutions, transforming them so that they will serve the economic, social and psychological dignity of all people? In an age of mass manipulation where politicians package themselves like commodities and where politics is synonymous with power, is there any value to concerning ourselves with a different, humane conception of politics and leadership? [....]
And in a time where people are told to hug old social structures, assert fundamentalist dogmas, and seek the repeal of social gains made by women, poor people, workers, since the French and American revolutions, should not people argue for more rather than less democracy, for more participation rather than trusteeship and oligarchy to protect and extend the gains of the past?
That "government is good" would seem to be an innocuous truism but alas that is not the case. All the same, "good governance" is a necessary but not sufficient condition of the "common good:"
The common good is not static; it shifts with our understanding and our discoveries of what is possible, of what humankind can positively create. In the day to day search for the common good those concerned with political action and those having to make conscious choices soon become aware that the common good is made up of contradictory and antagonistic elements. Often these antagonisms are between the new and the old. But no one should assume that the 'new' or the 'old' is a priori preferable over the other. In the age of modern science there is always a tendency to dismiss the old for the new. Indeed, the market system stimulates this tendency and there is enough that is rotten in tradition, or decaying in the old which justifies revolutionaries and capitalists alike in wanting to begin from scratch to erase history and its artifacts. But the reality is that the path of the common good encompasses the culture of the past, not in the sense that the people should be controlled by another time, but in the sense that the accomplishments and struggles of the past, of other generations, are not to be treated lightly. The accomplishments of others reflect the cumulative power and wisdom of civilization. (Raskin: p. 27)